Standing up to the Ebola threat in Guinea-Bissau

By Elizabeth Stevens
Alakbaz Mbana shares a laugh with NADEL director Sidi Jaquite. “Now,” she says, “we have less fear of Ebola because we know what to do in order not to catch it.” Jane Hahn

Border communities once facing acute danger and paralyzing fear now have some peace of mind, thanks to their salvavida.

In 2015, the world awoke from the nightmare of Ebola.

Worst-case scenarios, like the spread of the disease to the vast slums of Lagos, Nigeria, and far beyond began to look unlikely, as communities and governments and aid workers joined forces to contain the threat. As the year draws to a close, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea—ground zero for the epidemic—are nearly free of Ebola.

Of course, life may never be the same.

Alakbaz Mbana, who lives in Tombali region of Guinea-Bissau that borders Guinea, tells of the paralyzing fear people felt as the crisis unfolded. “We were thinking about Ebola so much,” she says, “that we could barely work.”

“We didn’t want to shake hands or get too close for fear that Ebola would be transmitted through sweat,” says Ibrahim Diallo, the chief of a border zone. “We were afraid to hunt because the animals might carry Ebola. We were afraid that children would pick up fruit or cashews that bat saliva had touched. We were afraid to drink water.”

West Africa is still not Ebola-free, and those fears are based in real risks; what’s changed is that prevention and containment now seem more possible. In Guinea-Bissau, the rural health care system remains drastically and dangerously under-resourced, but in border areas, community members can rattle off the symptoms of Ebola, and know to call the hospital if they see something suspicious. Homemade hand-washing stations known as tippy-taps are everywhere, and people know when it’s important to use them. They know how to make their water safe to drink, and how dangerous it can be to touch a corpse.

“Funerals have changed,” says Fatumata Diallo of Cuntabane village near the border of Guinea. “When people die natural deaths, their funerals are traditional. But if a person dies of disease, we call the hospital to handle the body and bury it.”

If the virus appeared here now, in other words, there’s a chance it wouldn’t get far, and this has brought communities some peace of mind.

“In the past we were more afraid of Ebola because we didn’t know what it was,” says Rafo Naplan, a farmer and mother who lives in the village of Matu Faroba. “People still fear the disease, but now we are more confident.”

“Now the communities understand how to prevent Ebola and cholera, and the importance of using latrines,” says Dr. Januario Biague, director of Tombali’s regional hospital. “This is the result of NADEL’s work.” Photo: Jane Hahn

It would be hard to overstate the importance of Oxfam partner NADEL (the National Association for Local Development) in helping Guinea-Bissau stand up to the Ebola threat.  With funding from Oxfam supporters, NADEL has worked with the government to ensure that Ebola messages go out over the airwaves, and that informational posters and signs are everywhere. In the remote and vulnerable border areas, their trained outreach workers have gone from door to door for more than a year, sharing knowledge about how to prevent the spread of the disease. They’ve held meetings and distributed kits containing hygiene essentials like soap and bleach, helped families install latrines and tippy-taps, and boosted surveillance at border crossings. In all, the NADEL teams have reached more than 250,000 people in Guinea-Bissau with messages about how to identify Ebola and avoid contracting and spreading the disease.

“NADEL has taught us how to identify Ebola, and avoid catching it,” says nurse Maria Cardoso, who does outreach in the communities for the NADEL partner Association des Femmes Travailleuses (Association of Women Workers). It has been, she says, their salvavida—their life preserver. 


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