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Wed July 16, 2014

Death, Sex And A Glimmer Of Hope: Reporting On Ebola From Sierra Leone

Originally published on Wed July 16, 2014 5:20 pm

NPR's Jason Beaubien is in Kailahun, Sierra Leone, covering the Ebola outbreak that began in March in Guinea and has spread to neighboring countries. This morning, he talked with us about a controversial burial, the impact of the "no touching" recommendation — and a sign of hope.

Yesterday you were planning to go to the funeral for a 70-year-old woman who died of Ebola. How was it?

The funeral definitely captured the tension over Ebola. The son of this woman had dug a grave right behind her house, in the backyard where she wanted to be buried. But other people filled the grave in before her body arrived because they didn't want her buried there. Eventually the local chief came to settle everything, and the chief was quite upset. The son had to apologize to the chief for not having consulted him about burying his mother in the backyard. Then the chief allowed him to bury his mother in the village but it had to be in the jungle behind the village. And so this guy and some relatives within an hour had cleared this area and dug a grave six feet deep. That's where they had the burial. The chief said this was the last time he was going to allow someone to bury an Ebola victim in the village.

The chief wants them to be buried...?

By the Ebola treatment center on the periphery of Kailahun, three or four miles from her village.

Why are people afraid of burying an Ebola victim in the village?

People just don't know how Ebola spreads. And they worry if a body's been buried and has Ebola in it, the Ebola will be able to get out and get them.

Ebola can't spread from a body that's been buried. How dangerous is the body before it's interred?

When a person dies, the virus has run rampant through that person. The level of virus is much lower in a person who's built up antibodies to fight it back. A dead body is incredibly hot from Ebola and is likely to transmit the virus.

So people are justified in being afraid of dead bodies. What happens when a body is found?

This morning I heard there was a dead body, a man just behind his house. People said he'd been sick for quite some time, like three years. So it's unclear whether he actually died from Ebola or something else. But when someone is just found dead in the street, everybody thinks it's Ebola and you have to treat the body as if it's Ebola.

How was the body handled?

Everyone was terrified. Guys suited up in [protective] suits, three layers of gloves. WHO [World Health Organization] is trying to train local guys to do this. And this is part of the story at the moment. You've got Ebola cases popping up all over, not just in Sierra Leone but in Liberia, in Guinea. Somebody has to go in and deal with the bodies. The problem throughout the region is that there isn't the medical staff trained in how to deal with an Ebola case.

Are there other misconceptions about Ebola?

Well, just a few minutes ago, I was talking to this one guy. He was saying that initially they believed that the white people who were showing up to treat Ebola were cannibals, and they were trying to steal body parts. They were taking blood samples, taking swabs from dead bodies. And he said they believed I was a cannibal.

And he meant you personally – that there were thoughts you were a cannibal?

He said it directly to me.

But he said now he knows that that's not the case. He said the people are gaining confidence in the people who've come to try to treat people here.

How is the threat of Ebola affecting daily life in the town?

This man was talking about precautions people are taking. He was saying that the "no touching" recommendation is being applied to sex. That no one in the village was having sex. I'm not sure that's necessarily true, but he said that was how the order on no touching was being interpreted.

Who gave out the recommendation for no touching?

That is a message that has been given out in general. NGOs [non-governmental organizations] are putting out material about how Ebola spreads, what to do to keep yourself safe. No touching is one of the recommendations.

Does the recommendation say: no touching strangers? No touching of family members?

Basically it's just said that you're not to touch other people, and everybody is interpreting that however they wish. So in church they're no longer shaking hands. I'd assumed people in their families are still touching each other, but the "no sex thing" is how that guy's interpreting it.

Life must be at a standstill in the town.

In many ways it's depressing. Schools are shut, the sole bank in town is shut, things are fairly bleak.

What are people doing to pass the time?

One guy was telling me he's taking this time to go out to work on his garden, to get the weeds out. That's how he was dealing with it. A fair number of people are just standing around even though groups have been banned.

Amid all the fear is there any hope?

Last night, five patients who were confirmed positive for Ebola were released from the treatment center, the largest group ever to walk out of there. They were quite excited at Doctors Without Borders. It shows that despite these incredibly high new numbers of cases and deaths, some people are recovering and are completely cured and being sent home.

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