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Churches and agencies formulate responses to Ebola outbreak

By World Council of Churches (WCC)
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GENEVA, Switzerland, October 1, 2014/African Press Organization (APO)/ -- To respond to the Ebola crisis in West Africa, which has taken more than 3,000 lives, the World Council of Churches (WCC) brought to the table representatives of Christian aid organizations and United Nations agencies to learn from each other and to escalate their efforts.

The WCC consultation, held 29 September in Geneva, Switzerland, affirmed a greater role for the churches and faith-based organizations in helping to stop the epidemic.

The Ebola crisis in West Africa is the largest of its kind since the 1976 outbreak. More than 6,200 people have been infected with the virus in severely affected countries such as Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, according to World Health Organization (WHO) reports. It estimates that numbers of infected persons could top 1 million by January 2015.

A recent UN meeting in New York has strongly urged stepped-up efforts to stop Ebola, naming it a “public health crisis” and a “threat to peace and security.”

Dr Pierre Formenty, an epidemiologist and the coordinator of the WHO's campaign against Ebola, while addressing the WCC consultation, explained how the Ebola virus appeared for the first time in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Even with a good response the number of affected people has increased on the statistical graph,” he said.

“This is a situation where everyone needs to work together: politicians, media, communities, faith organizations. We all have to do something. If one fails, everybody will fail,” said Formenty.

In this situation, he said, “Faith organizations in Africa have a huge role to play.”

Participants stressed that churches and other religious communities not only have a constant and influential reach to the grassroots populations to offer practical advice about hygiene and safe funeral practices but can also directly address the deeper cultural and religious roots of widespread stigma and discrimination that have accompanied the epidemic.

Dr Gisela Schneider from the German Institute for Medical Mission, who was in Liberia a few weeks ago, shared observations from her visit. “Christian hospitals are highly vulnerable,” she said. “This is why 'keep safe, keep working' is an important slogan we promote for the health workers serving Christian hospitals. She said that “people working on the ground need a great amount of encouragement, training, mentorship and support.”

Schneider added that while it is important to increase health facilities that reach the household level, it is “crucial to empower local communities to take care of themselves.”

Dr David Nabarro, the UN Secretary General's Special Envoy for Ebola, joined the consultation via Skype from New York City. He shared details of the UN strategy and actions in addressing the Ebola crisis in collaboration with local governments and international bodies.

Nabarro also mentioned an increase in efforts from the Security Council and engagement from the African Union in dealing with the impact of Ebola.

Nabarro added that the “struggle is not just to prevent the virus, but to take into consideration the long-term effects risking stability of the economy and communities.” In many areas farming and agricultural activities have come to a halt due to the fear of Ebola.

Nabarro argued that to formulate an effective response it is important to empower women, traditional healers and health workers without putting them at a risk. He said churches and faith-based organizations have a massive role to play in dealing with emotional, psychological and spiritual aspects of people's lives, engaging them on questions of life and death.