Ebola: Resistance, Rumors, and Conspiracy Theories

About 1100 cases of Ebola have been reported in the neighboring West African countries of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia. Since this is the first Ebola outbreak in West Africa, people are unfamiliar with the disease and unequipped to deal with it. Plus, rumors and conspiracy theories make people suspicious of healthcare workers. It is very difficult to convince people of the truth about Ebola.

Ebola came to Sierra Leone in May 2014, brought by a woman who was infected by persons from Guinea. Family members ignored a local quarantine. She died, and since tradition only allowed other women to touch or wash her body, the next cases were also women. A local quarantine was ignored, and the disease spread.

Sierra Leone officials have since banned traditional funerals, and the bodies of Ebola victims must now be buried by health workers wearing protective clothing. Many Sierra Leoneans find this disrespectful. Tradition calls for the manual washing of dead bodies, but merely touching the body of an Ebola victim can transmit the disease. People resist having loved ones removed from a family’s care and their bodies buried in mass graves. Ebola victims are often hidden by family members, who resort to traditional treatments.

The epidemic is complicated by local opposition and conspiracy theories.

In Liberia:

  • Doctors Without Borders abandoned a rural clinic after a mob attacked, claiming foreigners were spreading diseases. Something similar happened to the Red Cross.
  • A mob tried to raid a morgue to recover the bodies of family members, wanting to give them a proper burial.
  • In another area, armed men chased off government health workers.

In Guinea:

  • There is widespread belief that foreign health workers are spreading the disease.
  • Health workers have found their vehicles surrounded by hostile crowds armed with stones and machetes.
  • Log barriers block access to some villages.
  • At least 12 villages are inaccessible for security reasons, even though persons there probably have Ebola.

In Sierra Leone:

  • On July 25, thousands of people gathered outside the country’s main Ebola hospital in Kenema, threatening to remove patients and burn the hospital down. A former nurse had spread charges that the Ebola scare was invented to conceal cannibalistic rituals at the hospital. Police fired tear gas into the crowd.
  • Near Koindu, family members removed four victims from a community health center to prevent them from being taken to a government hospital.
  • A man in Kenema left an isolation ward and traveled to Freetown, where he was treated in a private home for a week before medical officials located him and returned him to Kenema.
  • An estimated 60 persons—suspected and confirmed Ebola cases—have escaped from hospitals and gone into hiding.
  • One woman fled an ambulance sent to take her to the hospital, but emerged from hiding after the symptoms became unbearable. She recovered.
  • In Freetown, family members forcibly removed a woman from a treatment center and took her to a traditional healer. A nationwide hunt ensued. She was found, but died in an ambulance en route to a hospital.

Ebola Awareness and Prevention Project

Sierra Leone Conference has devised an ambitious plan to educate people about Ebola. Most of the 78 UB churches in Sierra Leone are located in areas with confirmed cases of Ebola. Global Ministries is hoping to raise $15,000 to help underwrite the project. One UB church has already committed to sending $1000, plus additional funds as needed.

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