Cape Town, South Africa — It is hard for people in Sierra Leone not to lose hope as the death toll rises and worldwide fear grows over the worst Ebola outbreak on record, said the head of Caritas in the archdiocese of Freetown, Sierra Leone.
"Our situation is desperate," said Fr. Peter Konteh, executive director of Caritas.
In a telephone interview Wednesday from Freetown, Konteh said the mood of the West African country was bleak following the death Tuesday of the doctor who had been leading the country's fight against the highly contagious disease.
The Ebola death of Dr. Sheik Umar Khan, who worked at the Kenema Government Hospital in eastern Sierra Leone, "has left us feeling defenseless," Konteh said, noting that the hospital center Khan ran "is the only place in the country equipped to deal with Ebola."
Sierra Leone declared a state of emergency Thursday and called in troops to quarantine Ebola patients as the death toll from the outbreak of the virus hit 729 in the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
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Symptoms of the disease, which has no known cure, include vomiting, diarrhea and internal and external bleeding. The fatality rate of the current outbreak is around 60 percent.
Fear among local people that if they go to the hospital "they won't come out again" is largely fueled by the fact that the bodies of people who die of Ebola in hospitals "are put into bags and buried, and their loved ones don't see them again; there is no burial ceremony," Konteh said.
Michael Stulman, regional information officer for the U.S. bishops' Catholic Relief Services, said cultural traditions, including the washing of a body by family members before it is buried, are problematic in fighting the spread of Ebola, because the disease is at its most contagious in its advanced stages.
In a telephone interview Thursday from Freetown, Stulman said dispelling myths that are worsening the crisis forms a large part of the work that Catholic Relief Services is doing in Sierra Leone.
CRS staffers are training elders and traditional leaders to enable them to spread information on how to avoid contracting the virus and "what to do if they feel sick," said Stulman, who visited Sierra Leone July 24-Aug. 1.
CRS, part of the Caritas network, has been working closely with Sierra Leone's National Ebola Task Force on awareness-raising campaigns, using radio and other mediums to disseminate critical messages about prevention, transmission and treatment of the disease.
Konteh represents the Catholic church on the task force. He said that at the Caritas office in Freetown, "we give people chlorine to wash their hands with" as well as information leaflets.
"It's a case of simple hygiene," he said, noting that an interreligious forum issued a statement to dispel myths "spread by religious fanatics saying it's a plague and calling on people to come to prayer centers they've set up instead of health care facilities."
CRS also had to clarify the nature of Ebola to people who believe that the hospital deaths are the result of a political plot by anti-government forces, Stulman said.
Konteh said government, religious leaders and civil society now recognize that Ebola is a "national catastrophe" and are working together to stop its spread.
Reacting to fear among doctors and nurses of contracting Ebola while at work, the health department has stepped up provision of protective gear for staff at hospitals, he said.
Patients diagnosed with Ebola who are removed from hospitals by their families before they have recovered are cause for great concern, Stulman said, noting that a woman taken home to Freetown from Kenema hospital died in the ambulance on her way back.
"The fastest you can get from here to Kenema hospital by road is two days," Konteh said, noting that Freetown's hospital does not have the necessary equipment to treat Ebola.
"Our health system is not strong enough to cope with this," he said.
Sierra Leone's health system has limited supplies and minimal human resources, Stulman said.
He also said that while many international organizations are leaving Sierra Leone for fear of contracting Ebola and the U.S. Peace Corps is evacuating hundreds of its volunteers in affected countries, CRS has no plans to leave.
"We're sticking around," Stulman said, noting that CRS has been working "on the frontlines" in Sierra Leone for more than 50 years and has built strong partnerships with local organizations.
Konteh said Ebola has had "ripple effects on all interactions."
Many people's livelihoods depend on trading at big market places, "but they are staying away now," he said.
In eastern Sierra Leone, some schools closed and postponed examinations indefinitely, he said.