By Mariama Kandeh, Guest Writer, UK.
Sierra Leone is at the helm of a serious and very challenging public health issue that has the propensity to reverse the gains already made in the public health sector of the country in the aftermath of the civil war. The outbreak of the virulent Ebola hemorrhagic fever which so far has caused the death of over a 140 people and over 300 confirmed cases is a very serious threat to the wellbeing of all Sierra Leoneans and other nationals resident in the country. Already an Egyptian national resident in Kenema has been confirmed infected with the deadly virus.
Amongst the dead also are public health workers and journalists who put themselves in harm’s way to protect the lives of others and to get the necessary information out to the public. Ebola, like Sierra Leone’s ten-year war is gradually wreaking serious havoc on the socio-economic and human resource fabric of the country; especially so in the health sector in the provinces that so badly needs proper health facilities and services.
So far critics have blamed the lack of adequate sensitization and information gathering and sharing by authorities on the spread of the fever and subsequent loss of lives as a result. Government officials, instead of concentrating on preventive measures at the epicentre of the outbreak in Kailahun, were instead involved in bickering over who was right or wrong. Such fights over the Ebola issue did not yield any positive fruits as their acrimony did not in any way minimise the impact of the plague. On a particular instance, while it was announced that roads from Kailahun had been blocked and travellers on health check, the Mayor of Kailahun Alex Bonafa reportedly said he was not informed and that people from his township were using alternative routes to Kenema thus causing a further spread of the disease.
Sierra Leone is not the only country being hit by this fever and was not the first. Since its discovery, the West African Ebola attack has been the worse recorded so far with WHO reporting a total of 888 Ebola cases including 539 deaths since February, saying the epidemic had surged in Liberia and Sierra Leone and calling the situation "precarious".
Health workers working for Doctors without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres) have reported receiving some very negative feedback from residents in the Mano river basin where the fever continues to cause havoc. In Guinea, some villagers closed down their communities on health workers while in Liberia community residents pelted stones and chased health workers with cutlasses and knives. In Sierra Leone police had to fire tear gas to disperse a crowd which wanted to take their dead relatives for burial. In another reported case, a victim was brought to Freetown in secret and was being treated clandestinely at the expense of both the nurse treating the victim and people around her. The whole issue is people view hospitalization for Ebola virus as a death sentence. Many people do not believe they can be cured from the disease even though evidence has shown that early intervention could save the lives of Ebola victims.
There has been reports of patients running away from hospitals once they are declared positive of the haemorrhagic virus. There have also been reports of people denying the reality of the disease including a nurse in Kenema who reportedly denied that the virus is in fact real causing a group of young people to storm the Kenema Ebola centre and the Kenema police station in anger against the government. In Freetown, there were reports of the King Harman road hospital being shut down after the city’s first confirmed Ebola diagnosis and the relatives forcibly removing the patients from the hospital. Reports like these are down to nothing but ignorance. It shows there is need for an adequate, well-structured health promotion campaign in order for people to grasp a better and proper understanding of the virus and prevention mechanisms applied.
Using modern day technology to sensitize the public on the virus, its prevention and particularly the importance of early intervention could be key in preventing the continuation of deaths in high numbers. Liberia has about seven mobile and internet service provider companies operating with an estimated 69% penetration rate and an internet penetration rate of 7.4%. Guinea has about 14 mobile and internet service providers with market penetration rates of 67% and an internet penetration rate of 1.3%. Sierra Leone on the other hand has a total of 13 mobile and internet service providers with a market penetration of 38% and an internet penetration of 1.6%.
In the modern day, there is no better tool to use for such sensitization than technological tools. The Ministry of Health alongside partners working with them should bring on-board the mobile companies to help in this area. There is hardly a family in Sierra Leone without at least one of its members using mobile phones who in turn could help in the dissemination of information. Mobile phones are gradually replacing radio and television as a means of sharing information. Furthermore, through mobile phones Sierra Leoneans are able to reach out through whatsapp, facebook, twitter, google plus etc.
Mobile phone companies could be a tool through which important health promotion sensitization information could be distributed to mobile phone users who in turn could spread the prevention strategies to their families and friends. Sierra Leone’s population for instance is too small for sensitization to be viewed as such a tedious task. Most Sierra Leoneans have close family members that are easily reachable these days both in big towns and in villages.
If possible a local apps could also be developed to help spread the necessary information as it has been done in South Africa in the fight against HIV. Ebola is killing more people than predicted. And the spate at which Sierra Leoneans are dying is very alarming.
At a crucial time like this, Sierra Leoneans at home and abroad must put shoulders to the wheel to end this plague before it’s too late. The involvement of mobile companies and other internet service providers is particularly important at this stage of the spread of the virus. Sensitization must be intensified countrywide. Although Kailahun is the epicentre of the disease which has affected Kenema, the campaign should go nation-wide in order to improve on prevention.
Billions of Leones have been provided by the government and its stakeholders. This must be utilized judiciously and must be accounted for. In situations like this as was in the case of our war, when international support is swelling, the tendency for such funding to be mismanaged is highly probable.