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OPINION: 'Ebola is fake': how do you fight a disease people don’t believe in?

by Alex Carle | British Red Cross Society - UK
Friday, 21 June 2019 10:00 GMT

Claudine Kitsa who was discharged after being cleared of having Ebola, holds her daughter at a United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) creche for children whose families are suspected or confirmed Ebola cases, near the Ebola treatment centre in Butembo, Democratic Republic of Congo, March 28, 2019. Picture taken March 28, 2019. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

How do you convince people to follow stringent rules to reduce contamination and report suspected cases when some do not believe in the disease in the first place?

Alex Carle, British Red Cross director of programmes and partnerships.

“The Ebola virus doesn't exist; it's a virus that was made to eliminate the Congolese.”

“Ebola came as a gateway for several organizations that come to loot our minerals.”

“To increase or expand the list of deaths at Ebola Treatment Centres, innocent people are accused of being sick.”

These are just some of the thousands of rumours about the Ebola virus that the Red Cross teams  heard in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The country is now experiencing its worst outbreak in recent history, and the second deadliest outbreak globally in modern history.

The response faces many challenges, from funding and resources, to acceptance from communities at risk from this deadly disease. Burial teams, health workers and clinics have come under attack.

Since the outbreak started in August 2018, the Red Cross volunteers going door-to-door captured more than 33,000 individual rumours, observations and beliefs related to Ebola. The most common is that Ebola is a tool being used to exploit communities for influence or money, but we we’ve also heard a rumour that patients at the centres were given a pill to make them die. 

How do you convince people to follow stringent rules to reduce contamination and report suspected cases when some do not believe in the disease in the first place?

Sometimes the changes are small, such as entering some areas on foot rather than by car. Other times innovation is needed.

The belief that body bags contained rubble, not people, led to the Red Cross designing a transparent body bag.

Concerns about the burial process were addressed by giving families the opportunity to dress in the personal protection equipment and join burial team.

Tours of Ebola treatment centres together with testimonies from survivors can help counter negative feelings about clinics and what happens inside them.

Giving people information and forums to ask questions are important, too. There are mobile cinemas and radio shows where survivors and experts can answer questions.

Arming people with facts and the experience of survivors provide the tools to combat misinformation.

The input from local people also makes the response stronger and we’ve already seen a change. 

Before, 80% of suspected Ebola cases were reported by the clinics, with only 20% of cases reported by communities, often when it was too late to track contact.

Now that’s reversed: 80% of alerts come from the community.

This has only been possible by listening and building trust.

Tackling Ebola is not only a medical or logistical challenge. It’s a disease that affects people. It wipes out whole villages. It needs people power to beat it. When communities and aid agencies work together, when people are informed and engaged in stamping out Ebola, that’s when we will see a turning point.