SA woman returns from Ebola frontlines

By Sihle Mlambo Time of article published Oct 17, 2014

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Durban - Inadequate medical resources and some cultural practices might be contributing to the spread of the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa, according to a KwaZulu-Natal aid worker who was recently on the front lines helping victims.

Sharon Ekambaram, who recently returned to South Africa from Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) or Doctors Without Borders, said although it was not common in all communities, cultural practices – such as the touching and bathing of corpses – were one of the challenges that was perpetuating the problem.

The Pietermaritzburg aid worker said the government was imposing “desperate” measures to curb the problem as it had few resources.

Ekambaram said quarantining patients was not the most effective way to deal with the outbreak.

She said at one funeral, at least 40 new people were being infected with the disease because of cultural practices such as bathing and the closing the eyes of the dead.

“It is difficult. I have never felt such helplessness in my life, and I have been involved in activism for years. The struggle at the moment is that we are still running behind the epidemic; we are bringing it under control.”

MSF was not quarantining, but was instead helping with the establishment of isolation treatment centres. Those with a low and high suspicion of having the disease, and those confirmed infected, were kept in separate rooms and given the care they needed.

Ekambaram said Ebola was a “death sentence”, with the chances of survival after contracting the disease at 40 percent.

She said MSF was not leaving people to die but was helping them with the care they needed through hydration, treatment and feeding. Other diseases such as malaria were treated in the isolation centres.

The Ebola crisis was difficult to manage as it had swept into the urban areas where the cities were overpopulated and where mobility was high among the locals.

She said it was possible that more than 4 000 people had died as a result of the disease, and it was wiping out entire families.

It had spread to the populated urban areas away from the rural areas where it was easy to contain which posed a challenge for the local authorities who had a challenged health system, Ekambaram said.

She said the dead posed a high risk for new infections.

Isolation and breaking the chain of transmission was the only way to control the outbreak, but it was hard.

Ekambaram said health professionals were helping under extreme conditions, as they too were at risk. To reduce risk of infection, MSF workers were only allowed to be in Ebola stricken areas for a month.

She said MSF had about 300 international health workers in West Africa, and 3 000 people from the affected countries helping to prevent the spread of Ebola.

* To make a donation to support MSF Doctors Without Borders:

- SMS “JOIN” to 41486 to donate R15 monthly

- Donate online, visit www.decidetodonate.co.za

- For information visit www.msf.org.za/ebola

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