Zombie beliefs and social stigma feed Ebola

18 July 2014 - 02:01 By Bloomberg
Ebola virus Photograph: Michael Freeman/Corbis
Ebola virus Photograph: Michael Freeman/Corbis

Jamila, 24, got a cold reception when she returned home after 12 days in an isolation ward battling the Ebola virus in her hometown of Conakry, Guinea's capital.

Though she survived, Jamila was fired from her job as a philosophy teacher because her school feared she would infect her students, she said in an interview on July 3.

She spoke on condition that her surname was not published because she did not want to be victimised for having had the disease.

"People looked at me like I'd come back from the dead, like I was a zombie," she said. "Nobody except my relatives wanted anything to do with me."

The social stigma attached to Ebola, a haemorrhagic fever that kills as many as 90% of its victims, is complicating efforts to contain the worst-ever outbreak of the virus.

The disease has claimed more than 600 lives in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone since March.

The outbreak has exposed weaknesses in the health systems of the affected countries, which are among the poorest in the world.

Also, these countries' crowded capitals lack tap water or sewage systems in all but the wealthy neighbourhoods.

"Health systems, particularly on a rural level, aren't working well," said Guido Borghese, an adviser on child survival for Unicef in West and Central Africa. "They need to be strengthened, and not just to deal with an epidemic."

There is no specific treatment or vaccine for the virus, which was first identified in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976.