The Irish nuns fighting on the front line against Ebola
Fighting Ebola has been the greatest challenge three Irish nuns have ever faced, writes Rachel Lavin
On the morning of March 25, three elderly Irish nuns listened to the news on a crackly radio as they began their daily mission work in Lofa County in northern Liberia. The broadcast spoke of a mysterious disease that was spreading quickly and killing people within days of them falling ill.
The disease was Ebola. Nine months on, the three Holy Rosary missionary sisters - Mary Mullin from Tuam, Co Galway, Bridget Lacey from Newport, Co Tipperary and Anne Kelly from Galway city - are still dealing with the epidemic that has officially killed 7,500. Sr Anne and Sr Mary are both in their early 70s while Sr Bridget is in her early 60s.
They have, between them, 120 years of missionary experience. They have survived bloody civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone and fled for their lives under heavy gunfire during the Biafran conflict in Nigeria in the late 1960s.
But nothing could have prepared them for Ebola.
Sr Mary, briefly at home at the Order's convent in Artane in Dublin, recalls: "Most people didn't take much notice of it. It was an unknown and people didn't know how to cope, didn't realise how quickly it spread."
In a telephone interview from Liberia Sr Bridget says: "We just gave up what we were doing and took on Ebola."
But the clash of cultures made providing help difficult.
"They were afraid the white man was bringing the disease, that they were part of the problem. In Guinea, we heard that one of the first Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) trucks was stoned."
Sr Mary says medical workers' treatment of bodies clashed with Liberian ritual burials. "Liberians really say goodbye to the person, wash them and hug them. They feel that if they don't, the spirit of the person is not at rest and will come back.
"The locals saw white men in hazmat (hazardous materials) suits taking away sick people, many of whom never came back. And then the bodies were withheld from families as their burial ritual would put them in contact with dangerous body fluids. They grew increasingly agitated. While medical workers saw this as preventing the spread of more disease, many West African people believed it to be the cause," Sr Mary says.
The virus struck their part of Liberia in March and appeared to be in decline by June. Then the virus inexplicably raged again in August and became a full-blown epidemic in the autumn.
It has left Lofa County like a post-war zone. There are many orphans, families without a breadwinner and crops left unplanted.
The nuns are dealing with traumatised people, trapped by the inertia of grief and shock.
The Holy Rosary sisters began an awareness campaign to educate locals on prevention, and to eliminate myths. "In the beginning people were reluctant to go to the treatment centre in the town of Foya. They saw it as a death sentence, that they wouldn't come back, which, of course, was the case for many.
"We told people to go and get tested if they had a fever. Early testing was the key to people recovering and preventing the spread. Once people began to survive, and so then had immunity, that renewed hope. Now we have about 50 of the people spreading Ebola awareness information in 200 to 300 villages."
Rehabilitating survivors and finding extended families for orphans is now the major priority for the three nuns.
Sr Bridget remains cautious. "Until there's no trace of Ebola for 42 days, Liberia is not free of Ebola. And Liberia will not be totally free until there is no trace in neighbouring Guinea or Sierra Leone. It is all connected,'' she says.
The nuns have also lost close friends to Ebola.
An under-equipped hospital in Monrovia where they often stayed overnight before flying home, was overwhelmed by Ebola.
Sixteen members of staff died, everyone from the security guard to the social worker, including four St John of God priests who Sr Mary knew well.
She is raising money for the disease survivors and families of those who died from Ebola.
Sr Mary fights back tears: "They're the real Ebola heroes you know."