| 6.7°C Dublin

Ebola crisis: 'The pastor touched the dead man's eyes, a kindly act that cost 12 lives'

Close

Ebola orphans Martina koroma (7) and her brother Martin (3) in the Ben Hirsch childrens facility supported by GOAL in Kenema Sierra Leone.
Picture: Mark Condren

Ebola orphans Martina koroma (7) and her brother Martin (3) in the Ben Hirsch childrens facility supported by GOAL in Kenema Sierra Leone. Picture: Mark Condren

Ebola checkpoints are a common sight all over Sierra Leone, and require travellers to take regular temperature tests in order to determine whether they may have contracted the deadly virus.
Picture: Mark Condren

Ebola checkpoints are a common sight all over Sierra Leone, and require travellers to take regular temperature tests in order to determine whether they may have contracted the deadly virus. Picture: Mark Condren

/

Ebola orphans Martina koroma (7) and her brother Martin (3) in the Ben Hirsch childrens facility supported by GOAL in Kenema Sierra Leone. Picture: Mark Condren

MUSU BUREH switches quickly between English and the local Krio language, making some answers a little difficult to understand. But her generous nature is unmistakable.

In co-operation with the international aid agency Goal, she oversees the Ben Hirsch Child Care facility in Kenema, but if she’s overrun with children orphaned by Sierra Leone’s first Ebola outbreak she isn’t making much of a fuss about it.

She returns a bewildering array of figures when asked how many children are now under her care: “There are 173 in total... 20 in quarantine... 96 because of Ebola... and 20 other children...”

Musu breaks off momentarily to take Samuel (4) in hand, and help him with a t-shirt he was having a little difficulty figuring out. 

An animated woman in her 50s, immaculately turned out in a traditional West African suit and headdress, and liable to burst into song – prompting a chorus from the little ones in the room - she has unsurprisingly become a mother figure quite quickly to those who may have no-one else.

“Yes, finding out if they have someone else is one of the questions,” she says. “But there is a stigma attached to Ebola and if a child has lost a parent or two parents to the virus, that child will have a stigma. It doesn’t matter if the child overcame Ebola or never had it.

“Perhaps families are not coming forward because of this stigma. Perhaps families are afraid. Perhaps families are just not there.”

Here, as in the rest of Africa, tradition should mean wider family networks support orphans – but if one in a family contracts the highly-contagious virus, it has not been unusual for many to succumb.

It first emerged in the remote region of Kailahun in May. Denial soon turned to fear.

That anxiety has been fuelled by stories such as the Kailahun pastor praying over a victim, and making the mistake of touching the dead man’s eyes to close them – bringing Ebola into the pastor’s home, and death to 12 of his extended family.

Some have suggested the pastor story is apocryphal – as well as apocalyptic.

Not necessarily apocryphal, Musu insists, telling of one young woman who lost nine members of her immediate family and now leaves her two young children into Ben Hirsch when she can’t cope.

“I talked with other people and was told that Musu would help take of us, of my family,” Mariana Koroma tells the Irish Independent later. Her husband died a couple of months ago, but she beat it. Her children didn’t contract the virus.

“We have only my mother and she can’t provide for us. No money is coming in so we need help,” she says as her precocious daughter Martina (7) pulls poses on the street for a photograph.

“She wants to be a star,” her mother says, “and I want her to be a doctor who specialises in looking after children.”

Martina could do worse than study Musu.

“We look after many needs of many children,” Paul Wamai, area coordinator with Goal, says. “Even before Ebola, things are difficult for children in Sierra Leone (They are more likely to die before the age of five here than in any other country).

“But finding a support network for these poor children is now the priority.”

One in four victims of Ebola here is under 18, and Musu has more than 100 children who need homes.

For some orphans there is still hope – their parents may be in isolation wards, waiting to get the all-clear after the 21-day incubation period before they can reclaim the child.

That’s a long-shot.

The more targeted aims here include re-integrating survivors into communities, reducing the stigma of Ebola through education, and providing counselling to children often let totally bereft and alone by this infamous virus. 

It will be a long journey. 

****

THE trip between Kenema and the country’s capital, Freetown, is less than 150 miles on the best road in the country but still took four hours, until recently.

Now it takes five.

 In an effort to stop the spread of Ebola, numerous checkpoints have been set up where all drivers and passengers must disembark from their vehicles, wash their hands in chlorine, and have their temperatures taken to ensure they do not have a fever – one of the first symptoms of the virus.

To say the checkpoints are haphazard would be an understatement.

“You jump out of the car and queue up in close vicinity to other people you don’t know and then another person – maybe medical, maybe not – points an infra red thermometer at your forehead and tells you your temperature,” one health worker told the Irish Independent.

“In my experience, many of these people are using the thermometer incorrectly. They are wearing face masks even though Ebola is not airborne. 

“Meanwhile passengers are queuing in close vicinity to strangers when the virus is highly-contagious in terms of contact with bodily fluids.”

It’s not international best practice but the authorities need to be doing something.

However, the government’s next big move – a lockdown due to start tonight (THUR) and last through Sunday – has also garnered criticism.

The rational is that Ebola can be stopped if the infected patients are found and isolated.

However, initial (belated) government campaigns to raise awareness of the virus – “Ebola kills!” – and sensationalist reporting that put the death rate at 90pc for those who contracted it, meant that many with symptoms have refused to seek treatment– fearing they will be simply placed in a remote health unit to die alone.

Now, during the lockdown, thousands of health workers are due to go door-to-door on inspections, aiming to find, isolate and treat suspected cases.

How this will work in practice is unclear, given the health system is already over capacity – with increasing numbers of health care workers contracting Ebola - and given the population of the country is six million.

And the possibility of it working even in theory has been dismissed by Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF), among others.

“It has been our experience that lockdowns and quarantines do not help control Ebola as they up driving people underground and jeopardising the trust between people and health providers,” a spokeswoman said.

“This leads to the concealment of potential cases and ends up seeding the disease further.”

The lockdown will continue only until Sunday. It can take up to 21 days before a person with Ebola starts showing symptoms.

Find out how you can donate to GOAL here

See tomorrow's Review magazine for Jason O'Brien's latest dispatch from Sierra Leone

Irish Independent