United Methodist Bishop John K. Yambasu (left) preaches about Ebola at King Memorial United Methodist Church in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The bishop pleaded for a united front in the fight against Ebola. Pamela Mitula (right) of the World Health Organization helps train religious leaders in Freetown, Sierra Leone, on how to best support their communities in fighting the Ebola virus. Photos by Phileas Jusu, UMNS.

By Phileas Jusu | FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (UMNS)

Religious leaders hope that providing emotional and social support for communities across Sierra Leone will help counter the rise in Ebola infections.As the World Health Organization declares the present outbreak in West Africa a world health emergency, the Religious Leaders Task Force on Ebola, a Sierra Leone faith alliance group chaired by United Methodist Bishop John Yambasu, is intensifying its training efforts in addition to providing public education materials.Psycho-social training aims to stop instances of families shielding loved ones infected with Ebola at home or of infected persons who feel rejected hiding and showing up in other areas where their conditions are not known.A recent case occurred at the United Methodist Manjama Clinic in Bo, where two children fell ill with Ebola after their grandmother “smuggled” them out of Kailahun District where their parents died of Ebola.

Ebola has claimed more than 1,000 lives in West Africa to date. Sierra Leone’s public reaction to the outbreak has changed over the past few weeks from doubt to “desperate awareness” following the shocking deaths from Ebola of the country’s lone virologist, Dr. Sheik Umar Khan, and other health personnel.

Meanwhile, Dr. Modupeh Cole of Connaught Hospital —the government’s biggest health facility in Freetown — died on Wednesday in Kailahun. He was the latest senior medical doctor to catch the virus.

Now, it is common to see people working in places like banks and public transport wearing gloves. Some carry bottles of chlorinated water strapped to their back or shoulder. At the U.S. embassy, officials dealing with the public, especially in the visa department, regularly sanitize their hands after interactions.

With only one of Sierra Leone’s 14 districts left without an Ebola case, the two most severely affected districts —Kailahun and Kenema—were barricaded last week by the government to stop further spread of the epidemic.

Training for psychological first aid

During a two-day training on psychological first aid in early August – sponsored by the Religious Leaders Task Force on Ebola – facilitator George Bindi noted the wide range of reactions and feelings that people are experiencing because of the Ebola epidemic.

Being able to provide support on a community level is crucial, he said. “No foreigner or foreign aid is going to take Ebola out of Sierra Leone,” Bindi explained.“It requires Sierra Leoneans like you and I to do what we can to kick Ebola out of Sierra Leone.”

Pamela Mitula, representing the World Health Organization, emphasized that greater globalization, rapid air travel and ease of movement across borders has increased the potential for rapid dispersion of Ebola to new environments. And that means there is a need for international coordination and collaboration.

“Everyone has a stake in preventing epidemics,” she said during the training. “Health workers need to have a high index of suspicion and use the standard case definitions to detect suspected Ebola cases for investigations and management.”

Mitula said rapid identification of new Ebola cases is urgently needed to prevent further transmission and urged cooperation with health authorities. People who are ill should be treated in health facilities; this not only increases their chances of survival, she explained, but also could protect their families.

Involving the community in social and education activities for hand hygiene and ethical and proper burial of the deceased is key to any successful strategy to fight Ebola, Mitula stressed.

By end of training, participants were able to demonstrate how to provide non-intrusive practical care and support; help people assess and address basic needs and concerns; listen and provide comfort without pressure; connect communities with information, services and social supports; protect victims and affected families from further harm and use effective communication skills to combat Ebola.

Bishop calls for united front

During a sermon at King Memorial United Methodist Church on July 27, Yambasu spoke about the devastating effects of Ebola on the nation’s socio-economic development.

He acknowledged the feelings of fear, loss, pain, panic and suspicion that everyone is living with, as well as the disruption to daily routines and lives. “In Kailahun, all schools have been closed. There is a nation-wide deferment of school exams,” the bishop said. “Ebola also has made serious negative impact on religious activities — no pilgrimage to holy lands this year and there is a ban on public gatherings. In The United Methodist Church, we have suspended the children’s camps and pastors’ retreat.”

The bishop pleaded for a united front in the fight. “Ebola does not discriminate… Its victims are Christians and Muslims, saved and unsaved, sinners and saints. Its victims are the educated and the illiterate, rich and poor.”

“This is not the time for blame nor is it a time for denial. It is a time for action,” Yambasu declared.

The Religious Leaders Task Force made five suggestions to the Sierra Leone government to help minimize loss of lives to the Ebola epidemic:

  • Ensure that essential food items are available to the people of Kailahun and Kenema at controlled prices.
  • Make it a criminal offense with long-term prison penalty for anyone found guilty of increasing prices of food and other essential items above that set by government.
  • Establish Ebola testing and treatment centers in all 14 districts in the country, thereby minimizing the movement of Ebola infected persons across Sierra Leone.
  • Provide at least one “Ebola ambulance” for each district Ebola Testing Center so that patients are swiftly moved from homes to the testing and treatment centers.
  • Offer sufficient and high quality Personal Protection Equipment and other much needed health gear for all health workers in the country.

Jusu is a communicator for The United Methodist Church in Sierra Leone.

News media contact: Kathy Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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