The deadly Ebola virus has reared its ugly head and it is certainly taking no prisoners. To date, there have been 1, 201 reported cases of infection, including 672 deaths from the virus. The World Health Organization has described the recent outbreak as one of the most challenging it has ever faced. The Western African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have been largely affected by it, and there are currently concerns about the potential spread of the outbreak to neighboring countries if urgent and relevant action is not taken.
According to several reports, cultural beliefs and practices have played a substantial role in the rapid spread of Ebola, a virus which by all health guidance and protocols can be easily detected and contained. However, very few healthcare professionals in the region had a grasp of the disease in the early stages of the epidemic. So what is so unique to certain African cultures that has made it so hard for this beast to be controlled?
Meat eating practices
One of the best measures of protection against Ebola includes the thorough preparation of meat and meat products; ensuring that animals are prepared and consumed as soon as they are killed or well preserved before being eaten is key. In many cultures, it is the norm to hunt for “bushmeat”, particularly wild animals from the “bush” areas or forests. In a majority of rural environs, this is a much cheaper and easier way of obtaining animal protein. However, a problem exists when these animals are largely infected and not properly prepared; in many cases, these animals are killed, left out to dry for days at a time and subsequently eaten in their dried state.
Honoring the dead
Since the highly contagious virus is easily spread via contact with bodily fluids, another possible source of transmission comes with the practice of embalming dead bodies. In many cultures, it is tradition to touch or dress up the dead at funerals as a means of preservation and as a sign of respect, a practice that has taken place for years throughout history. This practice is not historically unique to this region of the continent. Ancient Egypt carried out a more evolved method of preservation through the mummification process. A problem with this practice at a time like this rests not with “what” but with “how”. With the number Ebola related deaths that have occurred over the past few months, it has been reported that most individuals have been buried secretly and away from health workers in an effort to honor traditional burial rituals, which has dangerously exposed others to the virus.
The curse of infection
In many West African countries where an extreme case of infection is seen as a spiritual affliction, many have come to view Ebola as a curse rather than a medical illness. Confusion and anxiety swept over many at the initial stages of the epidemic, with concerns over what may have been done to deserve such misfortune. This perception has opened up the floodgates of misinformation and mistrust, which of course has delayed appropriate health seeking behavior.
Lessons learned from prior response efforts in Uganda and Zaire tell us that educating populations is the best way to prevent transmission, particularly at the community level. An attitude of skepticism and mistrust has put individuals who have held on to long standing traditional practices on the defense, primarily because most view the “west” and “organized institutions” (a.k.a. national governments) as an infiltration of what they know and are comfortable with. While it is important not to disregard cultural practices, an effective way of working with skeptics is through the promotion of targeted messages that incorporate practices deeply rooted in tradition. Enabling people to own their beliefs while providing safer ways to practice them is probably seen as a win-win of sorts. Can education work its magic in the current state of rapid response as it were in the countries affected by this epidemic?
Maybe, or maybe not.
One critical lesson that has been learned through this all though, is that there will never be any time or effort lost in enhancing prevention messages that acknowledge culture and tradition.