A new approach to fighting Ebola's stigma

Hospital beds and other medical equipment are delivered to Freetown, Sierra Leone. World Hope International works in the Ebola-hit country to install temporary community clinics where patients get their own bed. Photo by: Anouk Delafortrie / ECHO / CC BY-ND

In the battle against Ebola in West Africa, containing the disease and seeking a cure is not enough.

Aid donors and implementers are pumping millions of dollars into fighting the outbreak but often overlook one of the epidemic’s most terrible consequences: stigma. Just even being suspected of having contracted the virus can lead families and even whole communities to abandon a single person, and that situation is aggravating the situation for health workers struggling to serve the hardest-to-reach affected areas in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

In Sierra Leone, U.S.-based international nonprofit World Hope International is focusing on an innovative approach to addressing stigma in those isolated villages. How? By installing temporary community clinics where patients get their own bed to show them that someone cares for them.

“It’s more than just a bed. It is isolation. There’s no known cure for Ebola so the only way we can stop Ebola is to isolate the patient,” John Lyon, the organization’s CEO, told Devex. “For you to do so, you need specialized facilities to hold people.”

The significance of putting these care centers equipped with beds (eight on average) within or even in close proximity of the communities, he added, is beyond the physical treatment they can provide — it’s more a way of restoring dignity to these people, cast out of their communities because of having contracted the disease or are suspected of being infected.

“The way this project is set up is unique because we’re making it a lot smaller and we’re kind of integrating them into the communities for them to take ownership,” Lyon explained. “It’s a more inviting place, so if someone comes in for treatment, they can still see their families safely.”

Implemented in partnership with UNICEF and Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Health, the program also provides immediate food relief to affected communities, supports livelihoods through exclusively local procurement and builds the capacities of public health workers deployed to run the facilities.

Asked about the challenges and lessons learned so far for his organization, Lyon was clear on his three priorities: staff, training and data.

“Know how many people you will need in the response then get the staffing right,” he suggested. “Make sure all the aspects of their training are done properly and that the staff is capable. Also, good data and analysis is key to benchmark progress and ensure success.”

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About the author

  • Lean 2

    Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Prior to joining Devex, he covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics. Lean is based in Manila.