Working together to stop the spread of Ebola
Sensibilisation work with the community leaders of Bolama-Bijagós
Guinea-Bissau, May 2021 – Many were surprised when, during the 2014-2016 Ebola (EVD) epidemic in West Africa, Guinea-Bissau was able to keep the disease at bay. Despite the outbreak in neighbouring Guinea, the porous borders between the two countries, and the apparent lack of preparedness in Guinea-Bissau, no cases were reported during the epidemic, said to have been the largest one in history.
The most recent outbreak of the Ebola virus in the region occurred in February of 2021 in N'Zérékoré Prefecture, a southern region of Guinea. As of May 13th, 2021, 16 cases were confirmed in Guinea, with 5 confirmed deaths and 10 recoveries. Guinea’s neighbouring countries, in an effort to offset any potential outbreaks within their own borders, updated their national response to be able to detect, isolate and manage potential cross-border cases.
Ebola is a highly contagious and often fatal disease that causes internal haemorrhaging and high fever. It is transmitted through contact with blood and other bodily fluids of an infected person or corpse. An effective way of combatting it is through preventive behaviours that halt the virus’ propagation entirely.
As part of the prevention efforts, UNICEF in collaboration with Guinea-Bissau’s Secretary of State of Social Communication and the National Institute of Public Health (INASA), developed sensitization sessions with community leaders of border areas, with particular attention paid to the islands of the Bolama-Bijagós region. During the 2014-2016 outbreak, Guinea-Bissau was identified by the World Health Organisation as a priority country for Ebola preparedness. Bolama-Bijagós was and continues to be considered one of the more vulnerable regions to the introduction of the virus in Guinea-Bissau.
“Every side of an island is an entry point, people coming from the sea arrive on every side, so we have to train people to set up vigilance posts in their communities,” says NADEL Executive Secretary Sisi Mohamed Jaquité.
Bubaque is the commercial hub of an otherwise isolated island community. With a population of approximately 7,000 people, the sensitization campaign was organized through informal djumbai sessions - community dialogues - under mango trees, that are in full bloom during this season. The 17 discussions that brought together 18 different communities, aimed at strengthening vigilance, and mobilising island populations through their traditional and spiritual leaders.
Understanding the importance of the djumbai, some participants travelled up to five kilometres from their villages by foot to attend. Participants ranged from traditional healers and chiefs to women’s associations. UNICEF has in the past created strategic partnerships with traditional leaders and healers to promote preparedness to disease, including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In the context of Guinea-Bissau, these groups and individuals are deeply trusted and authoritative over the communities that they govern and make part of. They are crucial in promoting preventive behaviours like hand washing, postponing funerary ceremonies and avoiding contact with corpses, and seeking health services for treatment should any symptoms be identified.
André Gomes Obango is a traditional healer who receives many visits from ailed members of his community so that they can be healed. He admits, though, that Ebola is a disease that he is unable to treat. “Only the big hospitals can treat this disease,” he says. From the sessions, he has learned how best to avoid the virus, and confirms that plastic jerrycans, soap and bleach have been made available in his village so that they are equipped to effectively combat it. He also tells the sensibilisation team, made up of staff from INASA, NGOs Nadel and Palmeirinha, the Secretary of State of Social Communication and UNICEF own Communication for Development team, that he makes sure that anyone seeking his services first makes a visit to the hospital, to prevent any potential infection.
“This session has taught us what Ebola is and that we should be mindful of it,” he shares. “I can’t cure Ebola. I did not know what Ebola was until these sessions, but we don’t want it in our midst. So, we ask that God helps us thwart it.”
Thwarting Ebola, much like COVID-19 will depend on all members of the community, young and old, journalists and spiritual chiefs, to volunteer their time and expertise and to embody behaviours that will protect themselves and others.
“We ask everyone to pass on the messages from the sensibilisation sessions. Everyone is invited to help us out in doing this work so that we can be free of this disease,” concludes Jaquité.