Medical professionals and health officials gathered to discuss the special cultural considerations in treating ebola in West Africa at the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance on the Meharry Medical Center campus in Nashville.
Most of the guests invited to the meeting Tuesday afternoon, hosted by the Tennessee Department of Health’s Office of Minority Health and Disparities Elimination and moderated by a representative from the Centers for Disease Control, were themselves from West African nations such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Nigeria.
“This is an outbreak of unprecedented proportions,” said John J. Dreyzehner, Commissioner of the TDH. Dreyzehner said he hoped the meeting would be the beginning of an ongoing conversation. He called people with families in West Africa “important sources of credible, quality information.”
Tennessee State Epidemiologist Tim Jones said that “we should not be at all surprised” if ebola comes to the United States. He said that ebolavirus was “not a hearty virus,” because it does not survive long on surfaces. The virus is not contagious until victims begin to show symptoms within 21 days of contraction, Jones said.
Ebola is spread through contact with the blood or bodily fluids of infected people and can also be spread through skin contact. Known as a “hemorrhagic fever, ” symptoms include a fever of approximately 101.5 degrees fahrenheit, headaches, muscle and stomach pain and unexplained bruising and bleeding.
“It’s really important to stress to people that it is not airborne,” said Jones.
“Liberia is in an awful state,” said Patricia Kpabar, who last visited the country in April with her Nashville-based group Foreign Momentum. With 1,698 suspected and confirmed cases and 871 confirmed deaths from Ebola as of August 31, Liberia has been the country hardest hit by the outbreak.
A French staff member working in West Africa is the latest member of Doctors Without Borders to have reportedly contracted the illness, the Associated Press announced early Wednesday.
The Liberian government is responding with quarantines and isolation, which is leading to people concealing their symptoms, Kpabar said.
Kpabar also mentioned deeply-held cultural beliefs as a complicating factor in rural areas.
“They think it’s witchcraft. They think it’s not real,” said Kpabar. “That’s how the disease is spreading: lack of education.”
“People were made to believe that this was a political machination,” said Mohamed Kanu, an associate professor at Tennessee State University about the “lackluster” and “very slow” response by the government of his home country, Sierra Leone. “You still have a significant amount of people who don’t believe this.”
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