Voice of America (Washington, DC)

2 August 2014

West Africa: WHO - Traditional Burials Hamper Ebola Fight

Photo: Leadership
Ebola virus

World Health Organization officials say traditional burial practices are among the obstacles that are making it difficult to control the worst Ebola outbreak in West Africa's history.

WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said health and relief workers have been trying to educate families in the affected region about how to bury their loved ones without exposing themselves to the virus.

He said people who touch the dead could be putting themselves at risk.

"At the moment when a person died from Ebola, this is the moment when the person is the most infectious and when the viral load is the highest," he said.

Dangerous practice

Jasarevic has been working with local officials in Guinea and Sierra Leone. In many cultures, he said, families wash the bodies of their loved ones before burial, but this practice is dangerous for Ebola victims because of the presence of bodily fluids.

"Usually there is the point just before the death, there is bleeding," he said.

Jasarevic also said there could be vomit or diarrhea.

Peter Schleicher, a Red Cross operations manager in Liberia, said another obstacle for relief workers in affected communities is fear, explaining that people in some communities have prevented trained health professionals from safely burying Ebola victims.

"We got a report back from one of our teams in the field that they have now been blocked by the angry community and they have been denied access," he said.

Schleicher said the team members were told to turn back to keep from putting themselves at risk.

He said relief workers have been trying to alleviate fears and inform communities that Ebola victims can be safely buried by trained specialists, who take extra precautions.

"The body will be disinfected and then be put into one body bag and disinfected again," he said.

"And this body bag will be put into the outer body bag. So actually, one body will be using two body bags," said Schleicher.

He said relief workers are sensitive to fears and burial traditions. But they have been trying to persuade communities to heed their advice, and allow trained specialists to handle the bodies of Ebola victims.

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