Alive, but still a casualty of Ebola

by Karen L. Willoughby |

Community health worker Marrion Thomson teaches children how to wash their hands at an Oxfam Hand Washing Point in Congo Town, an area in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Oxfam has provided handwashing stands in the area and also has trained teams to teach the community about the signs and symptoms of Ebola, how to prevent it and what to do if a family member becomes infected. Team members man the handwashing stands, and promote their messages there. Photo source: Oxfam.

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (Christian Examiner) – When someone dies here from Ebola, hazmat-suited workers remove everything from the home and burn it before spraying the bare walls and floor with heavy concentrations of germ-killing chlorine.

Oxfam worker Holly Taylor learned this during her recent week in Sierra Leone. Oxfam is an international confederation of 17 organizations working together with partners and local communities in more than 90 nations, according to its website: www.oxfam.org.

Taylor's blog about her first week in West Africa was published on the Daily Mail website, a tabloid-and-online publication headquartered in London.

"I can't imagine what it would feel like to lose a loved one and then be forced out by your community," Taylor wrote. "... when the burial teams take away the body they also burn all of the clothes, sheets and mattresses; the same thing happens when someone is taken in for treatment.

"This means survivors can be left without clothes, a bed, etc. And it's likely they can't afford to buy any more either," Taylor continued. "... It is becoming clear to me that there are just so many more casualties than those who are dying."

The assistant pastor at Bethel Heart of Faith Church in Joe Blow Town, Liberia, weeps after losing many members of his church, including the head pastor and another assistant pastor, to Ebola. PHOTO BY KIERAN KESNER

As of last weekend, Oct. 25-26, infected totals climbed to more than 10,000 with about 5,000 deaths from the epidemic, calculated from last December when a 2-year-old boy was documented as the first known victim of the present scourge. The disease was first identified in 1976 and named for the Ebola River in Zaire.

Most of the victims left behind family members who now are in desperate need, Taylor blogged.

On her first day in the country, Taylor learned that women need to quash their motherly instincts and instead of picking up, holding and comforting their ailing children, stay hands-off and report them, or face a two-year prison sentence.

Husbands too are off-limits. And when they die, the wife is not left with even one of his old shirts to comfort her as she grieves. Clothing is one of the first items to be burned.

Another vivid image from Taylor: "Dead bodies are left out on the street for days because families face a two-year prison sentence if they don't report an Ebola case; it means once a person dies their family are scared that they didn't report it, so they leave the body."

According to an internet health website—http://health.howstuffworks.com/diseases-conditions/death-dying/dying4.htm—"After the heart stops beating, the body immediately starts turning cold and uncirculated blood begins to pool and settle. Rigor mortis – stiffening of the body – starts within two to six hours after death. The body becomes discolored, first turning green, then purple, then black. ...

"If you can't see the change, you'll smell it soon enough, because the bacteria create an awful-smelling gas. In addition to smelling up the room, that gas will cause the body to bloat, the eyes to bulge out of their sockets and the tongue to swell and protrude. A week after death, the skin has blistered and the slightest touch could cause it to fall off."

Taylor said there also is a fear of calling a burial team, because "their whole community gets quarantined and people don't want to be responsible for that,"

One hospital worker has a colleague ill with the disease, and another who has died from it—even though the clinic doesn't treat Ebola patients.

"She worries about coming home because her child and nieces are so happy to see her that they run and hug her," Taylor blogged. "She said she is worried that if she gets ill she would infect them, because how do you explain to a child that they can't touch their mother? It's just one more example of a brave lady worried about everyone else and still putting her life at risk."

More Christian groups are getting involved with the Ebola crisis, usually supporting the work of in-country partners, who for the most part are educating people in their communities about beneficial sanitary practices; some groups also provide cleaning supplies.

Oxfam is one of the organizations that has constructed tap-water stations because of the need for water in rural areas, and the importance of hand-washing to stop the spread of Ebola.

"Public health messaging tells people to wash their hands all the time, but in reality, in poor rural areas where they have to walk miles to get water, they are not going to prioritize hand-washing; they are going to prioritize drinking and cooking," Taylor wrote. "That opened my eyes to the reality and how important providing a tap is."

People now in the seventh month of the Ebola crisis are "trying to stay calm,: she said.

"This crisis is completely horrendous and beneath the calm must be utter terror.""