Dr. Saran Tata Camara is one of the health workers who respond to the free 24 hours Ebola hotline. Photo courtesy of WHO.
Will eating raw onions once a day for three days protect me from Ebola? Is it safe to eat mangoes? Is it true that a daily intake of condensed milk can prevent infection with Ebola? These are just some of the questions posed to the health workers responding round the clock to calls received through the free Ebola hotline. With so many Ebola deaths to date, fear has allowed the spread of rumours and misinformation.
The Ministry of Health of Guinea set up Hotline 115 when it announced the country’s Ebola outbreak on March 21, 2014. Its main goal is to respond to people’s concerns and to be able to quickly refer suspect cases to the isolation ward at Donka hospital in Conakry for further investigation. It currently receives between 200 and 300 calls per day.
“Some of the people who call the hotline are in panic and false rumours make it difficult to calm them down,” says Dr. Saran Tata Camara, one of the doctors who takes the calls. “But if we tell them that it is not easy to contract Ebola and that they can protect themselves if they respect some rules, they often understand.”
To prevent the transmission of Ebola virus disease from one person to another it is necessary to take the following precautions:
- Do not touch sick people who show symptoms of Ebola including for example fever, diarrhea, vomiting, headaches and sometimes heavy bleeding.
- Do not touch the dead bodies of suspected or confirmed Ebola patients.
- Wash your hands with water and soap regularly.
A month after the government announced the outbreak, the need for information remains high. To disseminate the messages more rapidly and reinforce their content, the World Health Organization (WHO) and its partners have been engaging religious leaders, tribal leaders, traditional healers and community leaders to help with the outreach.
“It was particularly important to start a dialogue with the traditional healers early as some patients prefer to see them instead of consulting the staff at a nearby health centre,” says Julienne Anoko, an anthropologist from Cameroon who has been hired by WHO to help with the response to the outbreak. “As they see and touch many people with different symptoms, they are at high risk. They need to know how they and their patients can protect themselves and that quack cures can put lives in danger.”
Rumors can be very harmful. Recently, a team of Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) had to temporarily stop work at the isolation ward in Macenta in Guinée Forestière, because the medical staff were falsely accused of having brought the virus to the country.
Accurate and timely information helps people to take precautions and take a more rational approach towards the disease. It ensures that people who fall sick with the typical Ebola symptoms are quickly brought to the hospital for testing and care and that families do not hide their sick family members. The Ministry of Health, WHO and its partners know that they will only win the fight against Ebola, if they also win the fight against myths and misconceptions.