Sierra Leone religious leaders criticize government handling of Ebola

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[July 21, 2014]  FREETOWN (Reuters) - Religious leaders in Sierra Leone criticized the government's handling of an Ebola outbreak that has killed 194 people in the West Africa country, saying a lack of information was prompting rural communities to shun medical help.

Bishop John Yambasu, chairman of an interfaith task force, said he was "seriously disappointed" the government had failed to declare a public health emergency and pump more resources into the fight against Ebola, which has infected 400 people in the country during a regional epidemic.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said last week that Ebola had killed 603 people in total in Sierra Leone and neighboring Guinea and Liberia since February, the world's deadliest outbreak of the disease.

The highest number of deaths in recent weeks had been recorded in Sierra Leone, the WHO said. It warned of resistance from remote rural communities to allowing access to doctors amid fears that outsiders were spreading the disease.

"Every day in this country the number of new cases is increasing. To us as religious leaders that is unacceptable," Yambasu, head of the United Methodist Church of Sierra Leone, told Reuters. He said the government was too concerned by the "political connotations" of declaring an emergency.

Health Minister Miatta Kargbo has said the Ebola outbreak is "a serious matter" but has not reached emergency levels.

Amid a lack of funds to fight the outbreak, dozens of laboratory technicians at Sierra Leone's only Ebola-testing facility went on strike last week over a $20 monthly risk premium which they were promised but never paid.

Ebola causes fever, vomiting, bleeding and diarrhoea and was first detected in Democratic Republic of Congo in the mid-1970s. Spread through contact with blood and bodily fluids, it is one of the deadliest viruses, killing up to 90 percent of those infected, and has no known cure.

Yambasu said that in Kailahun in eastern Sierra Leone - the epicenter of the outbreak - locals had dug trenches to bar ambulances and police from accessing their communities. Many locals regard being taken to an isolation ward as a death sentence.

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"It is likely that people are dying in the bush" due to lack of information about the disease, he said, adding that leaving those infected in their communities was encouraging the virus to spread.

Yambasu said religious leaders would preach in their churches and mosques for a change of attitude toward the disease and would visit the center of the outbreak and call for change.

Sierra Leone's religious leaders played a leading role in ending a brutal 1991-2002 civil war.

"It is as a result of our experiences of the past that we have invited ourselves into this Ebola struggle," he said.

(Reporting by Umaru Fofana; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Susan Fenton)

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