Mali Nurse Endures Neighbors’ Stoning to Battle Ebola

“Rita has Ebola!” her neighbors chanted as they gathered at her front door after they learned that two patients at the clinic where she worked in the Malian capital, Bamako, died of the disease.

“The neighbors and some kids came after me and threw stones and handfuls of sand,” Rita, who asked that her last name not be used, said in an interview. While Rita, 38, never was in contact with either patient stricken down by the virus at Bamako’s Pasteur Clinic, she hid in her house for two days before an ambulance came to her rescue, she said.

Mali’s nurses and doctors are facing the stigma tied to Ebola that made medical workers targets in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, the three nations hardest hit by the virus. Misinformation about how the disease spreads and fear about being isolated have hampered efforts to recruit workers. In the U.S., President Barack Obama has encouraged volunteers to travel to West Africa, while putting in place steps to ease concern returning workers may spread the disease.

The United Nations has begged for more doctors and nurses to help contain Ebola in the region, where there have been more than 14,000 cases and at least 5,170 have died. Health workers are the most at risk of getting the disease because they can more easily come into contact with infected bodily fluids. Ebola has killed more than half of the about 500 physicians who got it in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea since December.

Families Panic

With the World Health Organization saying five people have died from the disease in the country, Mali, with about one doctor for every 10,000 people compared with 24 in the U.S., according to 2010 data from the World Bank, has managed to control the spread of the virus since the first case was reported on Oct. 23. That’s done little to ease the fear in Bamako.

The authorities are monitoring 413 people for Ebola symptoms, Mali’s Communications Ministry said in an e-mailed statement today. About 30 people are in quarantine at the Pasteur Clinic until Dec. 2 following the death last week of the nurse who treated a 70-year-old grand imam from Guinea who died on Oct. 27. He wasn’t tested for Ebola.

“Several of our doctors’ children don’t go to school anymore,” said Dramane Maiga, the director of the Pasteur Clinic. “There is a panic among the clinic workers’ families and relatives. People insult them, close relatives are distant. Even spouses and husbands are panicking.”

Student Harassment

The governments of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea are working with WHO and Doctors Without Borders, also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres, to educate people about how Ebola spreads.

In Bamako, another nurse at the Pasteur clinic decided to confront the issue head on when harassment by students at her daughter’s school forced her to run home.

“I decided we would both go back to school and explain that we are not Ebola contaminated just by the fact that I work at the clinic,” said Jeanne, who like Rita asked that her last name be withheld. “The director understood and informed the students. The situation is still complicated, but at least my daughter can go to school now.”

When the message doesn’t reach more remote areas, the consequences can be disastrous. In southern Guinea, eight people were killed in September while carrying out an educational campaign on Ebola in a village that had just had its first cases of the virus.

‘Rumor Manager’

Families of victims in Guinea, which borders Mali, broke out relatives from treatment centers at the beginning of the outbreak and threatened workers. They didn’t believe that Ebola was real and said the doctors were infecting their loved ones. In Liberia, a man burned down part of a hospital in the capital after his wife died.

In Nigeria, which was declared Ebola free last month, the government appointed a “rumor manager” and asked pastors to help dispel lies including those about fake cures that spread through Lagos, a city of about 20 million people.

The campaigns have included commissioning music by popular artists, radio advertisements and signs at public buildings. Some misinformation has persisted that has made it more difficult for health workers.

While the spread is being contained in some of the hardest hit areas of the three main affected countries, there’s a shortage of experts to help run Ebola treatment centers, Anthony Banbury, the UN’s head of Ebola mission, said in an interview on Nov. 5.

Skill Shortage

“That the most critical gap right now -- having very highly skilled experts,” he said. “We’re not able to open community care centers at the rate we want, and supplies are even starting to pile up in some cases in warehouses.”

That’s why Mali, a country of 16 million people, can’t afford to lose the services of nurses like Rita. By the time the ambulance crew evacuated her from her house, she had been left alone at home because relatives feared the rising hostility from neighbors.

“My two little sisters, with whom I was staying at home, left a few days before,” she said. “I don’t have anybody waiting for me there.”

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