The Hurt - and Danger - of Ebola Stigma

It was grey and drizzling when ActionAid Liberia’s (AAL) Ebola Response Team arrived in St. Paul Bridge, a community on the outskirts of Monrovia. A girl of about 5 sat on a covered porch in front of a small house. She was crying and in her hands she clasped an old Barbie doll. An ActionAid staff member crouched down and asked her why she was crying. She responded, in Liberian English:

My stomach is not full. I also miss my father very much. Do you know when he will be home?

The girl’s name is Taywah.  Her family is among the 19 others in St. Paul Bridge community that have been directly affected by the Ebola Virus Disease to date. Her father went to visit extended family in an area of Liberia called Foya District in Lofa County. It is where the first case of Ebola in Liberia was reported. It is also where Taywah’s father died.

Taywah’s mother, Siah, has not yet told her young daughter of her father’s death. Their neighbours, however, have learned the truth. Although the man never returned to St. Paul Bridge, many neighbours refuse to interact with the family out of fear that they are infected.

The death of her husband has left Siah as a single mother with seven kids to care for and no income. Finding a way to earn money has been difficult; the state of emergency restricts movement, and the fear that has engulfed the country has made many Liberians afraid to interact with even their closest of friends – let alone someone whose husband has died from the virus.

Siah and her children have been able to get by with support from extended family, but with the Liberian economy in a rapid downward spiral since the outbreak of the virus, the support is minimal. The family lives in a small, run-down home in one of the poorest areas of in St. Paul Bridge community, but still they struggle; they have no electricity, and rarely get enough food to eat. In these conditions, health and sanitation can be difficult to maintain, making Ebola even more of a threat.

ActionAid Liberia and its partner, Public Health Initiative Liberia (PHIL), visited Siah and her children to provide them with sanitization supplies under the Ebola Response Project. A few days later, when the team checked in on the family, they discovered they had moved. There was a suspected Ebola death in a home next to theirs.  Out of fear that they would face even more stigma – and potentially blame - from the neighbours, they relocated.

The stigma surrounding Ebola is more than hurtful and harmful to those who are subjected to it, it is also outright dangerous. It is, in fact, one of the key contributors to the continuing spread of the virus and the high rate of suspected, confirmed and probable Ebola deaths in Liberia. People refrain from reporting to the Ministry of Health when they have come in close contact with a case or suspected case of Ebola because of the stigmatization that will surely follow.

ActionAid and PHIL are working to stop the spread of Ebola by traveling to ActionAid project locations and beyond to improve public awareness, deliver much-needed supplies to clinics, and provide sanitization and food supplies to both vulnerable and affected families, with an emphasis on families headed by single parents and/or women.

 

Please help us stop the spread of this deadly disease. Donate now at: www.actionaid.org.uk/ebola

Story collected by: Joyce L. Kilikpo Jarwolo, Public Health Initiative Liberia (an ActionAid partner)