Ebola Prevention Campaign in Guinea Bissau
“It is the most irresponsible and extremely risky idea that you have”… This was more or less the comment I received from most of the people when I told my decision to join the Ebola prevention program in Guinea Bissau with Humana People to People. From one side I have to say that I agree with them – it is/was risky to join for this kind of action. But about being irresponsible - I strictly disagree. To help people is exactly the opposite of irresponsibility. After some months I found an answer to why I received the response written above - and the answer is lack of information.
Then…what is Ebola? Ebola is a virus…a deadly one as you have probably heard. The death rate of this virus is around 60-70 percent and there is no vaccination or any kind of cure for it. Most people know these basics but what is not publicly known is the prevention. Ebola – like everything else – has a weak point. Ebola only can spread via bloody fluids – such as saliva, blood, tears, and sweat. In a place where the hygiene standard is high, the people wash their hands the Ebola virus has no chance.
The Ebola Prevention Program in Guinea Bissau was really international. I met people even from Ecuador or India. It was really nice to see how people were collected for one noble reason: to educate people how they can protect themselves against Ebola. The virus was already on the borders of Guinea Bissau so the action to keep it from spreading into the country had to be fast but precise. The main actions were in Gabo area and some of us worked in the Bolama Islands. Other districts that were close to the Conakry border had similar actions like we did with Humana People to People (ADPP) but organised by the government.
Down in the islands we had another task apart from the prevention and that was to find out the actual situation in these separated parts of the country. Sadly in these islands there were not so many connections to the mainland meaning that we did not know what we would face when we arrived there. We had to map ‘do we have Ebola or not’. One of the main food resources is fish and in the open water there are no border fences or checks and this meant that the fishermen from Ebola infected countries could go without any check even until Gambia. Most of them did not go that far as they only stayed around the Bolama islands.
The first thing what we did when we arrived to an island is to find out where are the villages. Then we made groups and we divided the area between us. One of the most important action that we had to do every time we arrived in a new village was to meet the local leader. Without his permission our hands were basically tied. But with his help we could mobilise a meeting for the whole village and make our presentation. In these presentations we informed about the current Ebola situation and what they can do.
But theoretical knowledge won’t stop the spread of Ebola. So with some of the village activists – whom we trained in the village – we organised some practical actions. Practical actions included setting up hand washing facilities, digging latrines, building dish racks or in some of the villages it was enough to organise a deep cleaning action. The prevention did not end here. The activist continued, the actions continued and actions until the campaign was over. We did not leave the communities alone because they had the connection with us (and the headquarters) during the whole campaign and they could get help if they needed. Later on we did a second round to check how much they could actually reach. I could say they did pretty much. I am proud to say that in most of the villages the difference was visible.
Overall I can say that I am glad I could be part of this program. Prevention really IS something if we talk about epidemics. Luckily the virus did not pop up in Guinea-Bissau - I cannot say it is just because of our actions but statistics from other countries show the importance of these programs. In Senegal the virus also popped up but because of prevention campaigns only 20 people became infected.