Faith leaders are ‘game-changers’ against Ebola

07 August 2015

© sean hawkey

Progress: members of a World Health Organization team working on Ebola-virus vaccine trials in Guinea. They are trialling a ring-vaccination technique similar to that used in the 1970s to eradicate smallpox

Progress: members of a World Health Organization team working on Ebola-virus vaccine trials in Guinea. They are trialling a ring-vaccination technique...

CHRISTIAN and Muslim leaders played a crucial part in the battle to stop the spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa, but they became involved in the struggle too late. This is the finding of a new report, Keeping the Faith, which was commissioned by Tearfund, Christian Aid, CAFOD, and Islamic Relief.

Priests and imams, being trusted community leaders, were able to communicate vital information about how people could protect themselves from catching the virus, as well as legitimise new burial practices designed to prevent the disease from spreading.

The report — which was based on hundreds of interviews with religious leaders, aid workers, government representatives, and inhabitants of areas affected by the outbreak — concludes that local faith leaders collaborating with national interfaith groups “played an important role in turning the tide on the Ebola outbreak”.

A senior member of the Ebola Task Force in Keneme District in Sierra Leone is quoted saying that the nation “would have saved more lives and more money, had religious leaders been engaged at an earlier stage of the disease outbreak”.

For example, prohibitions on traditional burial practices of washing bodies were initially ignored, and the disease continued to spread from contact with dead bodies. In one case, 363 deaths were traced back to a single funeral in Sierra Leone.

The numbers of new cases began to fall, however, once clerics began teaching that the new forms of burial were permissible; they also highlighted verses from scriptures that encouraged the faithful always to seek medical help, wash often, and avoid contact with those who were infected.

A UN staff member in Sierra Leone said: “When [religious leaders] started participating in the revised burial practices, people knew they could trust it, and resistance ended. The participation of faith leaders was a game-changer.”

The close collaboration between religious groups and the aid and government agencies directing the anti-Ebola effort was a striking contrast to the picture at the beginning of the outbreak. At the start, the Liberian Council of Churches publicly declared that the disease was a plague sent by God to punish “corruption and immoral acts”.

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Later, the Church became a vital conduit for life-saving information from the authorities to the people. One study in Sierra Leone in December 2014 found that 47 per cent of those questioned had received information about Ebola from a church or mosque — a figure that far exceeded those who had been informed by the Ministry of Health or other official sources.

A programme, Channels of Hope, devised by World Vision for religious leaders to combat HIV/AIDS, was quickly rewritten to be relevant to Ebola, and used to train imams and priests to become their community’s leaders in changing behaviour and practices that could help spread the virus.

The report also said that religious leaders were useful in being role-models in the acceptance and non-stigmatisation of those who had contracted the virus.

Separately, World Vision has announced that, thanks to its “community engagement practices”, none of the 58,000 children or families it supports in Sierra Leone had contracted the virus. The charity said that, besides protecting those with whom it worked, it had also helped conduct about 29,000 safe burials, trained almost 2000 health workers in infection control, and distributed 30,000 radios to children, so that their education could continue while the schools were closed.

While cases have drastically fallen since their peak late last year, the epidemic has proved difficult to stamp out entirely. Some 26 new cases were reported in last week of July by the World Health Organization (WHO). More than 11,000 people in total have died during the current outbreak.

A vaccine developed by the Canadian Public Health Agency and the pharmaceutical company Merck has reported startlingly successful results, it has been reported in the medical journal The Lancet. A trial of the VSV-EBOV vaccine in Guinea found that nobody who was vaccinated immediately caught the virus, even though all the participants in the trial were close friends or family of someone infected.

A second batch of participants, also in close contact with someone carrying Ebola, were vaccinated three weeks later. There were 16 cases among this group.

This has led the WHO to declare the vaccine 100-per-cent effective, and for some aid agencies to call for its immediate deployment in the areas still battling Ebola. One WHO official told the BBC that the vaccine could be used to stop any future outbreak from spreading at all.

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