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Bina (right) and a friend wash their hands at their school in Nepal. Photo: Tom Price/Tearfund

From: Communicable diseases – Footsteps 112

How to reduce the spread and impact of diseases that pass from person to person

During the West Africa Ebola outbreak, strict control measures were put in place to try to reduce the spread of the disease.

However, some of these measures, such as rules around isolation and burial, were difficult for people to accept. They seemed to go against cultural values and religious practices. There was also a lack of clear information. This resulted in denial of the disease and hostility towards those who were trying to contain it.

Many of those with Ebola chose to remain with their families, and burials were undertaken in secret. As a consequence, the disease continued to spread.


Several faith leaders were invited to meet together to discuss how best they could support their communities. First, they used religious texts to interpret health messages related to the control and prevention of Ebola. Then, as they began to conduct modified religious practices, communities began to comply with the urgent need for safe burials.

A member of United Nations staff said, ‘There was a lot of Ebola denial and it was difficult to get health staff into the area to assist. The Imam and the local chief worked together using messages from the Qur’an and the Bible to discuss behaviour change with the communities. This paved the way for health staff to get access to the county.

‘Because people trust them, when they started participating in the revised burial practices, resistance ended. The participation of religious leaders was a game-changer.’

Faith leaders in Sierra Leone presented a unified message. Photo: Layton Thompson/Tearfund

Faith leaders in Sierra Leone presented a unified message. Photo: Layton Thompson/Tearfund

Overcoming stigma

By preaching and modelling acceptance of Ebola workers and survivors, faith leaders helped to drive out the stigma that was causing community divisions.

‘Stigmatisation is a very serious social problem when it comes to the Ebola virus, as used to be the case with HIV,’ said one Christian leader. ‘We have challenged HIV stigma and are now doing the same with Ebola. Those who have survived the virus find it difficult to be accepted back into their communities, so our ministers are preaching that people should accept their brothers and sisters, while still observing health guidelines.’

Medical practitioners also turned to faith leaders to support the huge, unaddressed need for counselling and psychosocial support.

One church leader in Liberia said, ‘It is the poor who are the church’s priority. This disease makes ordinary human kindness impossible – like putting your arm around someone who is crying. The key to survival is to keep our humanity intact in the face of this deadly Ebola virus, and as a church we are finding ways to do this with our communities.’

Taken from Keeping the faith published by Christian Aid, CAFOD, Tearfund and Islamic Relief Worldwide

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