February 4, 2015 / 3:15 PM / 6 years ago

MSF says lack of public health messages on Ebola 'big mistake'

CONAKRY (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) made the “big mistake” of focusing too much on treatment early on in the Ebola epidemic rather than speaking to people about tackling the disease, a senior member of the medical charity said.

Medecins Sans Frontiers (MFS) health workers stand in an Ebola virus treatment center in Bo, Sierra Leone in this file photo taken on November 17, 2014. REUTERS/Benjamin Black

MSF’s response to the worst ever outbreak of Ebola, which has killed more than 8,800 people mainly in West Africa, has been praised by the World Health Organization and governments.

With 20 years of experience of treating Ebola, MSF deployed hundreds to the Ebola “hot zones” and was quick to isolate patients and trace their contacts.

However, Claudia Evers, MSF’s Ebola emergency coordinator in Guinea, said: “MSF made a big mistake. We advocated for an increase in beds for too long, and everyone listened to MSF.”

“Instead of asking for more beds we should have asked for more sensitization activities,” Evers told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

The latest outbreak of Ebola, a hemorrhagic fever that kills roughly two-thirds of the people it infects, began in the forests of southern Guinea and was first identified in March 2014.

Mistrust of the government and health workers, partly due to lack of communication with ordinary Guineans, has prompted communities to hide infected people and bury bodies secretly, sparking fears the outbreak may flare up again, as it did twice in 2014.

A total of 42 new cases were recorded last week as well as three burials, according to government figures. In Guinea, there were just over 150 confirmed cases of Ebola in January compared with around 500 confirmed cases in December.

Sakoba Keita, head of the national Ebola response, said Ebola transmission was still active in 14 of the country’s 34 prefectures in the last week.

He said there were 11 new confirmed cases in Lola prefecture on the border with Ivory Coast and two new cases in northern Tougue, which had never before reported a case.

“Before we can get to ‘zero Ebola’, we have to get to zero resistance,” Keita told donors and aid workers at a coordination meeting on Monday, referring to the government’s 60-day Ebola eradication plan, which started at the beginning of the year.

MSF’s Evers said the next stage of the Ebola response required a new approach if the disease was to be brought under control, centered on the promotion of good hygiene practices.

“Isolate your sick and bring them in for treatment,” she said. “In the first nine months, if people had been given (these) proper messages, all this could have been prevented.”

Editing by Katie Nguyen

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