On Saturday I met with a man who had recently returned from working in Sierra Leone and Liberia to counter the Ebola outbreak. The meeting was calm and we didn’t wear face masks. He was Dominic MacSorley, Head of Concern Worldwide, and he was reporting to the Board on the work that Concern was doing on the ground in the Ebola-hit region.
Dominic explained that it was safe to be in this area as long as you observed the strict protocols: face masks, no touching, frequent washing and regular monitoring of your own temperature. He told us of the vital work that Concern was doing - scaling up education and community health work in a country where there is only one doctor for every 30,000 people and supervising the safe burial of Ebola victims. This latter task being of great importance as the World Health Organisation estimates that two thirds of new Ebola cases can be traced to unsafe burial practices. In West Africa, as in many cultures, it is normal to touch the deceased as you pay your respects. Concern is now responsible for health education and the safe burial of Ebola victims in Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone.
Dominic also told us of the reactions he had received since he had returned from Freetown. As per usual after an overseas trip, he was undertaking media appearances in Ireland to publicise the work of Concern. During one radio phone in Kerry he was told he was a danger to the public and should leave the county immediately. The Make-up Department of RTE had also refused to prepare him for a television interview, being afraid to touch him with pad and brush.
These reactions returned me some twenty five years to the height of the AIDS crisis, when similar stigmatisation of victims occurred. Ebola like HIV is a virus transmitted only by body fluids, so safe practices are required to protect against this transmission. Ebola like HIV is an animal virus that has transmuted to humans. Ebola is apparently common in fruit bats and is believed to have travelled to humans via monkeys (the monkeys ate the infected bats and humans ate the infected monkeys).
But Dominic wasn’t an Ebola victim, he had merely travelled to the area to help plan and co-ordinate the response to the outbreak. And he had been checked thoroughly before he was allowed to leave Freetown. Although still within the 21 day incubation period, he had been taking his own temperature each day and had no symptoms. I left the Board meeting proud of the work that Concern has been doing in West Africa and concerned about how easily moral panics become aroused.