Ebola changes church life in eastern Sierra Leone

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The Ebola epidemic has forced the relocation of a United Methodist pastor from a new mission area in eastern Sierra Leone and significantly changed congregational life there.

The Rev. Judith Banya of the Kailahun District is now in Bo, south of the area, due to the increasing number of people now dying in the district from the hemorrhagic fever, Ebola. The death rate for the disease is 50 to 60 percent of those infected. 

The epidemic, which started about four months ago in neighboring Guinea, crept into eastern Sierra Leone through Kailahun in early May. 

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"The presence of a pastor, especially for a new church is crucial,” said Banya as she prepared to go back to Kailahun Saturday to attend a board meeting of a local Child Fund-sponsored project. “My absence kind of dampens the enthusiasm of my congregation and that saddens me. Some people don't go to church when I am not there."  

Sierra Leone Bishop John K. Yambasu confirmed the closing of the UMC Mission and Banya’s transfer and described the Ebola epidemic as “nearing disaster,” particularly in the Kailahun District.

“The sad thing is that the government is both ill-equipped and lacks the political will to respond to the situation with the seriousness and passion it deserves,” he wrote in an email to the United Methodist Council of Bishops.

“The death toll is therefore increasing by the day as government tries to downplay the seriousness of the situation by covering up the number of people dying of the disease daily.”

The United Methodist Church has launched an Ebola Emergency Response Plan, focused on treatment, prevention and public education.The effort is concentrated in the Kailahun District but extends beyond it.

Two suspected cases of Ebola were reported at the United Methodist Manjama Clinic in Bo on June 30, and test results from the Kenema laboratory, which has become the center for treating Ebola patients, have come back positive.

Church sounds alarm

Healthcare workers at United Methodist Mercy Hospital were briefed in early June about the outbreak of the deadly disease which has never been seen before in this region of Africa.

Yambasu took the opportunity on June 8 to warn more than 1,000 people gathered for the dedication and opening of Valunia United Methodist Church in Monghere. He told them to seek medical help immediately if they or anyone they knew felt ill.

At the celebration in Bo Stadium on June 5 for the distribution of more than 350,000 insecticide treated mosquito nets, loud speakers repeatedly warned attendees to be aware of the symptoms of Ebola and of the urgency of reporting anyone suspected of having the disease to health officials.

Posters were also plastered around the stadium to alert and educate people about the disease just as the first cases were being reported.

Beatrice Gbanga, a missionary with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries and medical coordinator for the United Methodist Sierra Leone Annual (regional) Conference, told a packed room of nurses and other health care workers at Mercy Hospital on June 4 that the work they do puts them at the highest risk of getting the infectious disease.

“Two nurses have died of Ebola,” she said. “I am a nurse. I can see the risk. We must be prepared.”

Health care workers at Mercy were told to wear protective gloves, gowns and masks and to treat all patients as if they may be infected with Ebola.

Rising death toll

As of June 27, the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health stated that 181 people had been infected with the Ebola virus, with 53 people confirmed dead. According to the World Health Organization, the regional death toll — including Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone — stands at 467 of the 759 infected by the virus.

But some believe the Ministry of Health figures are conservative, and a local tabloid painted a gloomier picture, citing a National Public Radio story in the U.S.

In the June 18 NPR interview, Tulane University virologist Robert Garry said he found many villages there had been devastated by Ebola. “We found 25 corpses in one village alone. One house with seven people in it, all in one family, all dead,” Garry told NPR’s Jason Beaubien.

In a separate interview, Garry told United Methodist News Service the Ebola virus has probably been in the Guinean rainforest for more than 100 years.

“Ebola virus, in particular, will replicate in a lot of cells in your body. It causes damage and destruction; mostly the damage is to your blood vessels,” he explained. “So, it basically makes them permeable. That’s why organ systems break down. That’s why you get bleeding in the skin or from the mouth or the eyes or other orifices.

“It basically just takes over many, many cells in your body, and it replicates so fast that your immune system can’t combat it,” he said. “It can’t stop it from spreading.”

In the Baiwala Community where Banya works, those who previously believed the disease did not exist have been educated about the facts. "I used an advantage — our people respect their pastors, their religious leaders, and chiefs,” she explained. “So I went to the clinic and taught the people.”

Before then, she said, people ran to the suburbs and asked to be treated by traditional herbalists or other untrained healers out of fear that they would be told they had Ebola if they came to the health facility.

Police in Kenema had to disperse desperate family members who had mobilized June 27 to forcefully remove their relatives from the hospital. The families accused the health ministry of negligence and responsibility for the death of Ebola victims.

A nurse at the hospital recently tested positive of Ebola while three patients admitted for other conditions also later caught the virus.

Banya said she found it difficult to tell parishioners she was leaving. “My bishop actually wanted me to leave earlier this year when the news about Ebola was just breaking. I delayed a little while but when the disease reached Daru, just a few kilometers from Baiwala where I live, that was too close to home. I had to move out."

Impact on churches

Church attendance in the Ebola-affected areas has dropped significantly and there are few personal interactions after services, said the Rev. Solomon Rogers, Kenema district superintendent.

"The disease is enormously affecting the work of the church here as people are moving away from the district and relocating elsewhere,” Rogers added. “And it is the people who are educated; those who work and can give to the church; they are the ones leaving.

“This is having a corresponding effect on our income and church programs. For instance, some nurses in our church have told us they would stay at home until they are assured of protective clothing in their respective areas of work before they can report for duty."

On June 30, The United Methodist Church started a program to introduce children in all United Methodist schools in Kenema to hand washing and use of sanitizers. The children also will be trained on cleanliness in the homes with an emphasis on the use of antiseptics, Rogers explained.

“We need to get control materials like sanitizers (and) chlorine, and inform the populace about their proper use. In a desperate move, some people might overuse chlorine, thereby creating a poisonous effect on them," he said.

The church must help dispense education and hygiene materials in communities because the government cannot do it alone, Rogers said.

"I also think we, as United Methodists, need to strengthen our health facilities by equipping them with personal protective gears, sanitizers and chaplains deployed at those health centers to work with the hospital staff (by) giving out regular briefings on the disease," the district superintendent said.

Jusu is a communicator for The United Methodist Church in Sierra Leone. Gilbert, who was on assignment in Sierra Leone May 31-June 11, is a UMNS multimedia reporter based in Nashville, Tennessee.

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