The current Ebola outbreak in West Africa underscores the need to incorporate local beliefs in designing effective interventions.
The Ebola outbreak currently ravaging the West African nations of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone is said to be one of the most fatal outbreaks in history.
Back home in Uganda, we have had Ebola outbreaks in recent years – the most dreadful was the 2000 outbreak that claimed more than 200 lives.
Wherever there has been an outbreak of Ebola, there have been challenges of controlling the spread due to people’s beliefs, characterised by rumours of witchcraft and denial, of Ebola existence. Families with Ebola patients are often isolated by the community since they were thought to be under punishment by ‘supernatural powers’.
Some families seek the services of traditional healers.
The consequences of such beliefs and denial are dire.
First, hostility from the local communities towards health workers; secondly, such hostilities hamper efforts to contain the spread of Ebola.
An example is from Laurie Garrett’s online CNN commentary of July 24, citing cases of suspicion and rumours that culminated into Guinean health officials failing to quarantine an Ebola patient who reportedly spread the virus; a mob claiming that foreigners were spreading diseases attacked a Doctors Without Borders clinic in rural Guinea; families hiding their ailing relatives; local volunteers being attacked by locals; a mob trying to raid the morgue in order to give their loved ones proper burials; and family members defying a local quarantine.
Garrett further reports that by end of June, more than 60 missing patients could not be traced after fleeing from the health facilities.
As the World Health Organisation and the World Bank plan to scale up control measures, strengthen preparedness and response, we should be paying attention to the local communities.
Any intervention aimed at stopping the spread of Ebola must focus on involving the local communities. This is because most of the Ebola control measures appear to be in opposition to everyday life realities and traditional practices.
Finally, the health workers in affected places need to understand local beliefs, provide factual information about Ebola to increase acceptance of interventions aimed at containing the spread of Ebola.