CONAKRY, Guinea — The United States will help fight Ebola over “the long haul,” the American ambassador to the United Nations said on a trip to the West African countries hit by the outbreak.
Samantha Power, who is visiting Sierra Leone on Monday, met Sunday with religious leaders in Guinea, where the Ebola outbreak was first identified in March.
“We are in this with you for the long haul,” she told them. The outbreak has killed nearly 5,000 people, the vast majority of them in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. “We have got to overcome the fear and the stigma that are associated with Ebola.”
Many people hide in their homes rather than seek medical care because of fears that an Ebola diagnosis is an automatic death sentence and the social stigma attached to the disease, further fueling its spread. So far, more than 10,000 people are believed to have been infected.
Fear of the disease and its stigma is also making life difficult for foreign health care workers who are returning home after a tour treating Ebola patients, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Monday. A handful of U.S. states are beginning to require returning doctors and nurses to quarantine themselves during the disease’s incubation period, which can last up to 21 days.
Ban said the world depends on health workers to fight Ebola and asked government leaders not to quarantine them.
On her Twitter account, Power expressed confidence that the epidemic would be defeated but quoted one worker at a non-government organization as saying that aid workers are “running behind a train & the train is going faster than us.” She also described a “heartbreaking change” in Guinea: No one hugs or even touches, for fear of catching the disease.
Ebola is forcing such changes throughout the region. In August, Liberia’s government ordered that the body of anyone who died of Ebola in Monrovia be cremated — a practice deeply at odds with the typical funeral rites in the country.
The decree has been blamed for keeping many Liberians from seeking treatment because they want to be buried if they die. On Monday, Ciatta Bishop, who co-ordinates the handling of the bodies of Ebola victims, tried to assuage those concerns by saying that families can request the ashes of their loved ones. She also said authorities are keeping a list of all those who have been cremated and will erect a memorial at the end of the crisis.
So far, 1,700 bodies have been cremated, she said. In a sign of how sensitive the issue is, her press conference was broadcast on state radio, and people across Monrovia listened intently to her explanations of the cremation process.
There is no licensed treatment or vaccine for Ebola, so separating the sick from the healthy and ensuring the bodies of those killed by the disease are properly handled are the only ways to stop Ebola’s transmission. But that job has been made difficult because there aren’t enough beds in Ebola treatment centres or enough ambulances to bring people there.
Guinea opened a new centre in a region southwest of the capital on Monday where people can be screened for Ebola and sent on to Conakry if they test positive. Meanwhile, France sent 30 members of a government disaster-preparedness corps to Guinea this weekend to offer training on how to transport people who have Ebola-like symptoms and how to track down people with whom they’ve had contact.
Health authorities are meant to rigorously track down everyone who has had contact with the sick and monitor or even isolate them during the disease’s incubation period. However, the disease spread for so long before it was identified in West Africa that tracing contacts has been difficult, if not impossible, in the worst-hit countries.
Mali, which announced its first Ebola case last week in a 2-year-old who travelled on public transportation from Guinea, was monitoring 47 people on Monday who had contact with the toddler.
Markatie Daou, a Health Ministry spokesman, said the little girl, who has since died, remains the only person in Mali who has tested positive for the disease. But the World Health Organization has warned that many people may have had “high-risk” contact with the girl, who was bleeding from her nose during the journey.