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At a glance: Nigeria

In Nigeria, battling the stigma of Ebola

By Patrick Moser

As the West African Ebola outbreak continues to spread, its impact on families and communities is becoming more pronounced. UNICEF announced that at least 3,700 children in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have lost one or both parents to Ebola since the start of the outbreak, and many of them are being rejected by their surviving relatives for fear of infection.

In Nigeria, Ebola survivors and those who have come in contact with infected persons, as well as their families, find that being declared free of the disease is just a first step. They still need to cope with stigmatization.

LAGOS, Nigeria, 30 September 2014 – Martins, 17 lost his mother to Ebola. At times he also feels like he has lost a part of his life.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Nigeria/2014/Esiebo
Princewell (left), 27, and Martins, 17, lost their mother to the Ebola virus. “Somewhere, somehow, people will get to know,” Princewell says. “So I think it’s better to let them hear it from us."

After his mother was taken to hospital with symptoms of Ebola, Martins and a 21-year-old brother were medically monitored for 21 days, the maximum incubation period of the Ebola virus.

They were not infected, but Martins says the situation had a profound impact on their lives.

Since their mother – a nurse who had treated the first Ebola patient in Nigeria – fell ill, the two brothers have been staying at a hotel where no one knows them.

“We couldn’t go back to the house. People knew what happened over there,” he says. “We knew they would start stigmatizing us,” he says.

Friends stayed away. People complained he had gone to church “to spread the disease,” Martins says, his voice choked with emotion. “It was really horrible, hearing something like that. Can you imagine that?”

Stigma

Martins and his siblings would like to bury their mothers’ ashes in her home village. But village leaders are blocking the burial, even though the ashes are sterile.

“The way they respond is, ‘Keep it there, don’t take that in here, don’t come and bury it here,’” says Martins’ older brother Princewell.

Princewell, 27, was not at home when their mother fell ill, but he is worried about how people will treat him when they find out that his mother died of Ebola.

“I get to hear the minds of people, what they say pertaining those who were infected and those who had contact. If you hear what they’re saying, it’s really scary. You can actually tell what will happen when I blow it to them that, ‘Hey, it was my Mum who had died of this’. A lot of them will run away.”

Princewell says he and Martins initially hoped to keep the issue secret from as many people as possible, but eventually realized they couldn’t avoid it.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Nigeria/2014/Esiebo
After Dennis Akagha 32, recovered from the disease that killed his fiancée, it took time to convince people he was Ebola-free.

“Somewhere, somehow, people will get to know,” Princewell says. “So I think it’s better to let them hear it from us. To know what is wrong, to know what is not wrong, instead of getting it from outside and then use it as stigma, use it against us."

Many survivors and contacts, as well as their families, have similar stories.

Dramatic change

Lagos businessman Dennis Akagha, 32, initially tested positive for the disease that killed his fiancée. Although he recovered, it took time to convince people around him that he is Ebola-free.

“A lot of persons were staying away from me – my friends, my neighbors – they were running away from me,” he says. “In fact, some were suggesting to the landlady to evict me out of the house.”

Now, things have changed dramatically. His neighbors chat with him and don’t hesitate to shake his hand. He even has his hair cut by his regular barber, right next to his home.

The change, Mr. Akagha says, came after he decided to speak out – to neighbours, to the media and to anyone who would listen.  He explained that he no longer had the Ebola virus in his body and could not transmit the disease.

The best tool to fight stigmatization, he says, is knowledge.

By deploying teams to the streets and to people’s homes to explain how the disease is transmitted and how people can protect themselves, UNICEF has played a major role in the effort to contain Ebola in Nigeria.

The social mobilization campaign is also aimed at battling stigmatization.

Right information

At a bustling bus stop lined with market stalls, the message appears to have reached some people.

A fried bun seller who identifies herself as Amaka says she made sure she has the right information on Ebola. She says she dismissed suggestions that bathing in salt would keep her safe – a widespread myth in Nigeria.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Nigeria/2014/Esiebo
Amaka, a fried bun seller in a local market in Lagos, says she has made sure she has proper information on Ebola, and would welcome business from people who have survived the disease.

And, she says, if someone like Martins or Mr. Akagha wanted to buy a doughnut from her, she would have no problem taking their money, or shaking their hands.

“There is nothing to be scared about,” she says.

Misconceptions

But not everyone is as convinced as Amaka.

“I can’t shake hands … I’m afraid of contracting Ebola,” says Simeon Ochibike, 20, when asked how he would react if he met a friend who survived Ebola.

“If he comes out of the clinic and they say he has no Ebola, I would still give him some time,” says Mr. Ochibike, who sells cell phone cards at a small outdoor stall.

“At least I would see you touch him, and I’d wait for 21 days. If you do not die, then I can start touching him,” he adds, as his friends hoot in agreement.

While the courage of survivors to tell their stories – and to address fears that they pose a threat to public health – is an important part of public outreach in fighting misconceptions about Ebola, it is clear that much work remains to be done. 


 

 

UNICEF Photography: Ebola community outreach

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