A health adviser for a top global Catholic relief agency stressed the Church's key efforts on the Ebola front in West Africa: helping people overcome panic and avert devastating social stigmas by providing accurate information. “Much of the work has been to educate people about the facts surrounding Ebola, because there’s so much fear and panic and misinformation that goes out among the people,” Monsignor Robert J. Vitillo told CNA on Oct. 20. A special adviser on health for Caritas Internationalis, the priest observed that in the areas most affected by the disease — namely Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea — the Catholic Church has been “a credible witness” where people go to get good information. Most of the facts are given by churches during Mass, as well as by Caritas and other Catholic organizations who offer special training to priests, religious and lay catechists on how to talk about the virus. Msgr. Vitillo offered his comments after addressing the United Nations conference in Geneva last week during an Oct. 20 Caritas Internationalis briefing. The information on how to prevent the spread of Ebola that the Church gives is basic, he said, and involves simple, practical procedures such as hand-washing, keeping three feet away from people, not touching those who already show symptoms of Ebola, and above all avoiding direct contact with the bodies of those who have already died of Ebola. A lack of knowledge about Ebola has led to numerous social problems, including the ostracization of infected persons — or those suspected of being infected — by their own families, the abandonment of children orphaned as a result of Ebola, as well as pastoral problems for priests who want to visit the sick. “During my visit to Liberia, priests shared with me that their healthy parishioners did not want them to visit the sick — they were afraid that priests would be infected themselves and transmit the disease to others,” Msgr. Vitillo explained. Priests, as well as pastoral staff members and other charitable agencies, have had to remind parishioners that the Church “was mandated by Jesus to serve all in need,” and have strongly urged them to “avoid any tendencies toward stigmatizing or discriminating” against anyone affected by Ebola or who is living with or near someone that is infected. The priest then recounted the story of a doctor who had contracted Ebola while caring for infected patients at the Catholic Hospital in Monrovia. Although she made a full recovery, her neighbors still barred her from returning to her own home. Only when the local pastor arranged for her to give her testimony in her parish did the parishioners begin to understand that she had recovered and therefore developed an immunity to the disease, so she posed no threat. “Reactions of fear and panic can be observed among many people in local communities,” Msgr. Vitillo observed, noting how some family members “reject their relatives who become sick because there is an almost automatic presumption that these people have been infected by the Ebola virus.” The priest then recounted another story from his visit to Liberia earlier this year, this time of a family who had abandoned their 90-year-old grandfather because he was showing symptoms of Ebola. Even when the man’s test results came back negative, the family still refused to take him home, and he died before being transferred to a facility run by a group of religious sisters. What the monsignor dubbed as “Ebola orphans” are also rejected by their families, and are often abandoned in treatment centers. Catholic institutions are working to provide care for these children until their relatives understand the situation and are able to take responsibility for them, he said. “The trauma of multiple losses in families and of strong fear, panic, and misinformation may be felt in society long after the epidemic has ended,” Msgr. Vitillo noted. The effects of the outbreak will be “very deep and multifaceted and will be long-lasting.” He recalled how at a Special Briefing on Ebola held in Washington, DC on Oct. 9, president of World Bank Dr. Jim Kim predicted that if the international community does not act more quickly, the economic impact could reach close to $32.6 billion before the end of 2015. Despite the fact that Sierra Leone experienced tremendous economic growth last year, the situation has now reversed due to Ebola, the priest said. The infrastructure Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, “is at the point of collapsing.” Already weak from recurring wars and “abject poverty,” the countries are headed for catastrophe if the economic impact is as high as predicted, he said, adding that the situation is worsened by the numerous school closures. Children who are not in school are at greater risk of falling into petty crime or being manipulated or abused, Msgr. Vitillo went on. Health infrastructure in these countries was already “quite weak and now is unable to respond to the crushing demands of Ebola care, routine health care and other health emergency situations.” However, despite the challenges the Catholic Church has been at the forefront of the Ebola fight, and has provided an essential role in maintaining continuous care, he said. In Liberia 14 of the 16 Catholic health clinics remain open while many of the governmental or other private health facilities are closed. “So it’s continuing its care for the sick beyond Ebola to make sure we can take care of those who have other illnesses or who are victims of automobile crashes and things like that,” he said. Caritas is currently making an effort to reopen the Catholic hospital in Monrovia, which closed after it lost nine of its staff members to Ebola. “Now we’re working on making sure that we have careful prevention methods and facilities before people get into the hospital, and we want to re-open that facility as soon as possible.” The Ebola epidemic is continuing to devastate parts of West Africa. The World Health Organization said that nearly 5,000 deaths had been reported as of Oct. 19, but the true numbers could be as high as 15,000.
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