Africa: Turning Communities Into Partners in the Fight Against Ebola

Bundibugyo, 14 August 2019:- Kambayaya Tembo lives in the Bundibugyo District, Uganda. He rushed to his family when his wife, Florence, called with the terrible news that his brother had died in their house. His first instruction to her was to keep the children away from the body - no one should touch it.

His greatest fear was that his brother could have died of Ebola because the young man worked at a town close to the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where the Ebola Virus Disease outbreak has entered its second year.

His next course of action was a call to the Red Cross volunteer in the community. The Red Cross is partnering with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Government of Uganda and other Agencies in sensitizing communities on preventing the spread of the Ebola virus from the neighbouring DRC.

Within minutes of the death, the neighbours and community leaders gathered at Kambayaya's homestead to console them while awaiting health experts.

"I called the Red Cross because we do not know what killed him," said Kambayaya. "We were afraid of touching the body because we were advised that if someone dies at home, it is better that you call the Ebola experts."

The Health experts made the assessment that Ebola had not caused the death of the young man and assured the family that they could go ahead with the burial, but the family and the community declined. They wanted more assurance that it was safe for them to do the burial.

"We were still afraid and asked for their assistance in burying him so that we do not get infected," Kambayaya said.

WHO and the Red Cross organized a safe and dignified burial the next day.

For Adam Mugenyi, the local Red Cross volunteer, the reaction of Kambayaya and his family was the fruit of his work to build up trust in the community he serves. The contrast from just a few months ago was marked.

Previously, this community angrily chased away volunteers and medical personnel that came to talk to them about Ebola. Many believed that the disease is only found in DRC and not Uganda. They claimed that organizations were just spreading rumours and spending dollars on a non-existent disease.

Now, with every call he receives from the community, and for every knock on his door by frightened families, he knows that his people are prepared and ready to respond to an Ebola outbreak. The days and months of mobilizing the communities and confronting the various myths about Ebola with facts are paying off.

"The community now takes the Ebola outbreak seriously," said Diana Tumuhimbise, Red Cross Manager, Bundibugyo District. "As I speak, community resistance has reduced and this is a result of consistent communication with them."

The Ebola alert line is busy with families with concerns for sick loved ones. Others just walk to the Red Cross offices to report suspected cases they have seen or heard. Community deaths are being reported prior to burial so that the bodies can be tested for Ebola.

Dr Innocent Mwesigye, WHO's Coordinator in Bundibugyo, has been responding to many of these alerts. This can mean walking for hours through the mountains to inaccessible villages in order to supervise burials and calm concerned communities.

"They respond, they remain calm until we give them more information whether it is Ebola or not based on laboratory results," Dr Mwesigye said.

WHO supports the Ebola response in Bundibugyo through the provision of Ebola Treatment Centres including treatment kits, equipment for screening travellers along the border towns as well as surveillance at health facilities and community level.

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