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Save Catholic clinics in Africa – they may be the only ones to fight Ebola

Caritas officials have urged that in facing the Ebola outbreak in west Africa, efforts should be focused on keeping Catholic clinics open because they are the best-equipped in the region.

Many hospitals in Liberia, the nation most affected by the virus, have closed. Tony Banbury, head of the UN mission fighting the virus in west Africa, told the BBC this week his organization lacks the resources needed to defeat it.

“Because of the closing of many clinics, there is more risk of dying by a car accident than by Ebola,” Msgr. Robert Vitillo, Caritas Internationalis advisor for health, told CNA Nov. 4.

Msgr. Vitillo spoke at a meeting sponsored by Caritas, during which those involved in the response to the Ebola outbreak in west Africa met at the Vatican in order to coordinate their efforts, share best practices, and begin planning the post-epidemic recovery.

In this process, Catholic hospitals can play a crucial role, though they have been strongly hit by the epidemic.

“In Liberia, 14 out of 16 clinics of the Church have been preserved, but many clinics owned by the government or by other organization in the area are closed; and this increases the risk of an infection,” underscored Msgr. Vitillo.

The Caritas health advisor mentioned the case of the St. Joseph Hospital of Monrovia, the Liberian capital.

Founded in the 1960s, St. Joseph's was the oldest continuously operating hospital in the country. It stayed open throughout civil wars which lasted from 1989 to 2003, but shut down in August after several doctors and health workers were infected by Ebola.

“We need to reopen this hospital – it was the best in the country,” Msgr. Vitillo said.

According to the World Health Organization, faith-based organizations own between 30 and 70 percent of health infrastructure in Africa.

The hospitals are collaborating, and in Liberia there is a Catholic Council coordinated by the Franciscan missionary Sr. Barbara Brillant.

Sr. Brillant said “the most difficult thing is to regain the trust of the people.”

Asked which would be the next step of the Catholic commitment, Msgr. Vitillo said “the Church is doing a lot; we don’t have to start something new. I believe we should strengthen our efforts in the most infected countries to accompany the people who are working in these countries, especially fostering a social mobilization.”

“Educating people is the first thing. We try to explain to them how to properly wash their hands to avoid the infection, and we also try to explain to them that if one relative is infected, only one member of the family may be in contact with him to take care of him.”

Another risk of infection is given by the burial of the corpse of infected persons, since in Africa a body traditionally is thoroughly cleaned in a process involving many people, and the burial ceremony is attended by many members of the family.

The World Health Organization had mandated that the corpses of Ebola patients be buried without family members, but later – after Caritas explained to WHO officials the importance for many people of having at least one relative and a member of the clergy at the burial – allowed the presence of a small number of family members, albeit at a given distance.

Edward John-Bull, director of Caritas Sierra Leone, said he had heard stories of relatives who have bribed health care officials to certify a deceased family member as negative for the virus so that a normal funeral could be held, thus increasing the risk of infection for the family.

Deacon Timothy Flanigan of Providence, who has an M.D. and is a professor of medicine at Brown University, recently returned from Liberia, where he volunteered to support the efforts.

In an interview with CNA Nov. 4, Dn. Flanigan stressed that “the Catholic Church is right on the front lines. I was working in small clinics run by the Catholic Church – these healthcare workers are totally committed.”

“They are anxious for their own safety, but they are doing the best they can to keep safe and they know that if they do not show up, nobody else will, so their commitment was really unbelievable and very heart-warming.”

According to the WHO, up to Nov. 2 there had been 4,818 deaths from the Ebola outbreak, and more than 13,500 cases.

Next to Liberia, the worse affected countries are its neighbors Sierra Leone and Guinea. Outside west Africa, Ebola cases have been reported in Spain, the US, Germany, Norway, France, and the UK.

The infectious disease is caused by the Ebola virus, first detected in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1976.

Infection is caused when someone has direct contact with the flood, vomit, feces, or bodily fluids of someone who has Ebola; it is not airborne.

People are not infectious until they develop symptoms of the disease, and remain so for up to seven weeks after recovery.

Ebola has no proven cure, though potential vaccines are being tested. A serum can made from the blood of survivors – which will have antibodies against the virus.

The outbreak has been traced to a child who died Dec. 6, 2013 in southern Guinea, but its spread began in earnest in March.

The Church response to the outbreak has included the delivery of 2,600 radio ads and 1 million mobile phone texts to educate to prevention; health kits given to some 53,000 families; and the feeding of people who are now in quarantine – food will be delivered in coming days to 1,500 families in Sierra Leone and 1,250 in Guinea.

 

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