Visiting progress and inching closer to the end of Ebola in Sierra Leone

As Sierra Leone inches closer to the end of the recent Ebola outbreak that has claimed almost 4,000 lives, WVUK's Celebrity Media Specialist, Siân Merrylees, recently visited our projects there to see for herself how World Vision has helped.

By Siân Merrylees, World Vision UK Celebrity Media Specialist

Sitting among the audience in a remote village in Sierra Leone, villagers around me are convulsing with laughter; our local children’s theatre group is putting on a sketch about Ebola. It could seem slightly odd that they are appearing to trivialise something so serious, but this is the first time in a year that public gatherings have been permitted across the country.

Effects on arrival

Right from the start, when you set foot in Lungi Airport on arrival in Sierra Leone the effect of the virus hits you. Immediately after stepping off the plane you are required to wash your hands. At passport control, a machine measures your temperature via the pressure of your index finger on a pad. And before you can collect your luggage, two men in white coats and latex gloves take your temperature with an infrared laser thermometer.

The outbreak of Ebola effectively brought the country to a standstill last year: schools closed for nine months and public gatherings (including rural weekly farmer's markets) were banned. People stopped shaking hands when they met, and buckets of chlorine outside offices became the norm.

However, days before our trip emergency regulations - designed to halt the spread of the disease - have been relaxed. Markets are buzzing and pubs and clubs are happily beginning to re-open their doors to drinkers and dancers. You can sense a feeling of relief and celebration - albeit one of caution - as Sierra Leoneans welcome the news that their country is at last inching its way to being able to call itself Ebola-free.

Remembering the outbreak

When the first case of Ebola was recorded in May last year, Ebola was a mysterious disease. The country was in panic, and rumour and misinformation spread as quickly as the virus. Leslie Scott, World Vision Sierra Leone’s National Director, told us that he was more afraid during the early days of the outbreak than during the country's civil war. During the military conflict, "you knew where the war front was, but with Ebola you don't know where the war front is; everyone is a suspect."

However, when we travel to Bo - a district four hours drive southeast from the capital Freetown - it's immediately obvious that we have been key in working with communities to quash panic and sharing vital information to help contain the disease. None of the 58,000 children - or their immediate families - who are supported by our sponsorship programmes throughout Sierra Leone contracted Ebola.

The drama workshop from our kids club in Lugbu has the audience hooting with laughter as one of the theatre group hams up his role. Yet, despite the hilarity, the message is hammered home: Ebola is survivable if you treat it early; if you or someone you know has symptoms, call the Ebola helpline.

And this is reinforced when we meet Lugbu's chief, Mohammed Alie, who proudly points out that while his World Vision supported village escaped infection, surrounding villages were not so lucky. "World Vision played a prominent role to make us aware that Ebola was real and it is deadly," he says.

Faith fights disease

At this meeting, the gathering opens with a Christian and then Muslim prayer. It’s immediately apparent why Sierra Leone is regarded as one of the most religiously tolerant nations in the world. I'm used to opening my daily newspaper in London to read of multiple conflicts around the globe with their roots in religious dispute, yet here in Bo a pastor and an imam are hugging and explaining how they "came together to save the lives of the families and children in our communities."

A few years ago our programming staff had a brainstorm - when a population (such as that of Sierra Leone) relies heavily on information from its faith leaders, the best way to get any message across is to work with those leaders. Our Channels of Hope (CoH) program started in South Africa as a way to transform attitudes of Christian and Muslim faith leaders regarding HIV/Aids, but when the Ebola outbreak hit here, the program in Sierra Leone turned its focus to Ebola.

Reverend Peter Kainwo and Imam Alhaji Mustapha Alpha Koker both attended a CoH Ebola workshop. Alhaji says: "Through the workshop, I realised that Ebola would only be beaten by using the Bible and the Koran, plus scientific know-how to convince people to change their ways."

After attending the training, Reverend Peter and Imam Alhaji persuaded their congregations of thousands to lay aside the sacred tradition of washing bodies before burial - a common practise in West Africa, but deadly when washing the body of an Ebola victim is a prime opportunity to spread the disease. Instead, Peter and Alhaji encouraged people to call the national hotline which would send a specialist team to bury their loved ones with respect (and without spreading the illness).

A lasting legacy

Throughout the trip my head swims as I learn about all the ways my colleagues here have helped to combat this disease - from training burial team workers, to handing out gloves and goggles to healthcare workers, to providing food for quarantined families. Meeting sponsored kids in one community, we come across a seven-year-old proudly showing off his pink wind-up radio. It's just one of 30,000 radios we distributed so children could tune into the classes broadcast with the Ministry of Education while schools were shut last year.

However, although the end of the epidemic is in sight, the repercussions are lasting. Families struggling to survive before the outbreak were hit hard when regulations meant they couldn't travel to trade or plant crops - and children were particularly affected.

Regina, 13, explains that while not at school she had to do lots more housework. This might sound like the natural grumbling of a teen anywhere, but in Sierra Leone the Ebola outbreak has meant that children who would normally have been in class started working instead, and they worry that their parents might now prioritise this over their education.

During the crisis, according to Regina, teenage pregnancies also escalated. Some girls claimed they received more pestering from older men when at home for longer, while others suggested that young friends were married off as their parents could no longer afford to feed them. As the leader introducing the Kids Club sketch pointed out, every child in Sierra Leone is an Ebola survivor. They may not have been infected, but each one has been affected.

During Siân’s trip, she and our colleagues on the ground were hosting celebrity YouTube vlogger Louis Cole, as he toured our response work. You can see more about the trip and some of Louis’ videos here. For more on how children have been affected by the Ebola crisis, please read our Children's Ebola Recovery Assessment: Sierra Leone report. Working with Save the Children, Plan, and UNICEF, we spoke with over a thousand children this spring to hear their concerns, and ideas for recovery.

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