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Ebola Outbreak Provokes Shift in Attitudes Towards Health Care and Burial Rituals in Sierra Leone

04/07/2014 17:05 BST | Updated 03/09/2014 10:59 BST

"Believe that Ebola exists" is Mack Lahai's message to the Sierra Leonean people. The 26-year-old Laboratory Technician at the Government Hospital in Kenema has been working to shift his community's attitude toward the Ebola outbreak since it spread into the north eastern region of Sierra Leone over a month ago. With fear and doubt getting in the way of effective treatment, it's been an uphill struggle for health workers like Lahai.

When the outbreak started the health workers were nervous, says Lahai, especially after seeing the hospital lost four nurses to Ebola. Now that the government has organised so many workshops for health workers, however, they are more confident and feel safer. They now take the right precautions and use the Personal Protective Equipment.

Initially anxiety was sparked by rumours that health workers were killing patients by injection who had been confirmed positive with Ebola. Lahai firmly denies such allegations. Since the outbreak started the hospital has lost four health workers to the virus - he asks, "What health worker would inject a colleague to death just because of Ebola? No one has been doing that here." The real fact, he says, is that Ebola is extremely contagious: that is why the government and health services are appealing to the public to report all people who have shown symptoms of the virus. Those who don't will be reported to the police. Traditional healers, still popular in many parts of Sierra Leone, have also been instructed to report suspected cases to the nearest health centre.

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Simply reporting cases isn't enough, though: the sooner the case is reported the better, says Lahai. Some people are lucky enough for their immune system to win the battle and be cured, but if you wait until the case gets worse before reporting to the health centre the health worker won't be able to do much.

Despite the work of both government and Médecins Sans Frontières, there is still an atmosphere of anxiety surrounding the crisis. Lahai says that patients admitted to the hospital for other conditions have been escaping because they are afraid and don't feel protected: every day someone dies from Ebola and they think that they are at risk of dying if they continue to stay at the hospital.

The situation is complicated by the fact that traditional culture dictates that members of certain societies must be buried by their own community. For this reason some people have been asking for the corpse of their dead family member so that they can bury them, Lahai explains. On 27 June, the Government Hospital in Kenema was attacked by an angry crowd demanding to see the corpses of their family members who have died of Ebola. The police intervened and calmed the situation.

Despite improvements, Lahai still feels the message needs reiterating: "Follow the preventative measures and report all cases showing symptoms to the nearest health centre immediately." Attitudes are changing, but the fight is by no means over - Lahai adds: "Pray for the nation and ask God to see the country through the Ebola crisis."

Additional research for this piece by Moses Kortu.

Amjata Bayoh is a reporter for On Our Radar in Freetown. On Our Radar trains and supports reporters from some of the most isolated and excluded communities in the world to share news and influence policy.