In Guinea, misinformation about Ebola abounds. Here, the disease has killed more than 2,300 people, and the streets are rife with rumors—of how Ebola is a hoax or a conspiracy to harvest organs. Some Guineans who have seen the ravages of Ebola firsthand believe that the very people coming to help them are actually spreading the disease.
After deploying two times to this West African country as a member of USAID’s Ebola Disaster Response Assistance Team, it became clear to me that community resistance is one of the biggest obstacles to stopping Ebola.
But one NGO is taking a novel approach to dispel these rumors. In the town of Forécariah—a two hour’s drive southeast of Guinea’s capital Conakry—the French Red Cross is running an Ebola treatment center in this hard-hit prefecture with the support of USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance. While a team of health care workers is fighting for the lives of the sick, another group is fighting fears by inviting the community inside.
Tours into the Unknown
Anne-Flore Hivet heads the social mobilization team for the USAID-funded French Red Cross Ebola program in Forécariah. She is also the brainchild behind the idea of offering tours of the treatment facility so the public can actually see what the Red Cross is doing to care for patients.
“We conduct the tours like a museum visit,” Anne-Flore told me. “We stop at every important part of the facility and explain what happens at triage, for example. We demonstrate [how people put on] personal protective equipment. We show them the patient visiting area, the laundry area, and the incinerator where waste is burned.”
The tours have opened the eyes of both the people taking the tours and the French Red Cross staff giving them. Anne-Flore has a whole page of rumors her team has heard from the visitors, among them: that people are burned in the incinerators; hygienists are not disinfecting homes but spraying the Ebola virus; and that health care workers are taking the blood of sick people and storing them in the facility’s water tanks.
“They think we behead the sick, take their blood, and harvest their organs,” Anne-Flore explained. “Fears run very deep in the culture.”
The tours have been slowly breaking down the walls of misinformation about the disease.
“To witness what is going on is powerful,” said Laurent Larose, who heads the French Red Cross project in Forécariah. “[The tours] changed the perceptions about the center…. They see that we work to help people.”
The French Red Cross has given tours to everyone from school groups to traditional healers who hold great power in the community, Since January 15, 2015, more than 800 people have visited the center–some have come more than once.
Yet with new Ebola cases emerging, everyone agrees that community engagement must be stepped up to stem the tide of the disease. Winning the trust of communities helps county health teams trace contacts and isolate the disease. In addition, it encourages the sick to seek treatment more quickly, reducing the risk of transmission to others.
The French Red Cross and Guinea Red Cross are among the many groups traveling from village to village to raise awareness about Ebola. They’re also explaining the importance of safe and dignified burials and helping survivors return home by breaking down stigmas. Some teams have been attacked for their work, but people tell me that attitudes are changing.
“It’s getting better now,” said Swaray Karamokobo, who leads the Guinea Red Cross safe burial team. “More people understand and they believe. They are no longer hiding cases. They are calling in and bringing out the sick.”