Fighting Ebola and Starvation in Sierra Leone

The virus is spreading faster than ever in Sierra Leone, and the country’s people are not only fighting the deadly disease but something equally as horrifying: starvation.


Ebola’s 15 minutes of fame in America increasingly appear to be up.

Twitter has gone from more than 1,000 mentions per minute to just over 200. The national news has put away its chocolate-covered HAZMAT suits. In some ways, this is good news. Panic—and the inevitable panicking about the panic—is counterproductive. But while the risk to Americans remains incredibly low, the risk to international security worsens by the day.

Too much of a positive narrative can be worse than a bad one. The Ebola epidemic is containable, but it has not been contained. In some parts of West Africa, it’s growing faster than ever.

Eclipsed by celebrations over alleged success in containing the epidemic in Liberia, a new deadly outbreak has been silently surging in rural Sierra Leone—allegedly spreading nine times faster than two months ago. Strapped for medical staff and lacking in the resources needed to treat the 5,338 suspected cases, the numbers are soaring.

Sierra Leone, the potential new hot zone of this epidemic, is facing many hurdles. Money is one of them. According to a report from the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health, an estimated $221 million is needed in Sierra Leone, just to contain the outbreak. As of Nov. 3, only $110 million had been earmarked for the region—most of which has yet to arrive.

Leadership is another hurdle. While Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and other NGOs have a strong presence in the region, the 14 districts have largely been left to wage their own battle. Localized efforts to contain the epidemic’s spread in the nation, such as the self-imposed quarantine of the mountainous region of Koinadugu, initially seemed to be working. An October 10th piece in The Washington Post praised the district’s self-isolation as a “resounding success,” calling it the only Ebola-free zone in Sierra Leone.

But just days later, WashPo released an update reporting that the World Health Organization had confirmed several cases in the area. “The district appeared to have lost its coveted title,” it reads. In response to the article, leaders in Koinadugu vehemently disagree with the report, saying the cases have been mistakenly allotted to the area. The quarantine had either failed by then, or did shortly after. But the secrecy and fear surrounding the once-successful quarantine has now put the region in even greater danger. Last week the Red Cross was sent to the region to “urgently collect 30 bodies.” They had reportedly been lying out in the village for days.

That’s not to say Koinadugu didn’t do the best it could with the resources and people it had. NGOs in the area are the first to admit to the severe lack of resources available to help those suffering. “Although there have been some slight reported improvements in Ebola crisis in Liberia, the same cannot be said for Sierra Leone, which has seen a significant surge in reported cases in recent weeks,” writes MSF in a Tuesday update on the epidemic in West Africa.

The international response, says MSF, has been “slow” and “uncoordinated,” leaving many of the greatest needs unaddressed. “MSF teams in West Africa are still seeing critical gaps in all aspects of the response,” the report continues, “including medical care, training of health staff, infection control, contact tracing, epidemiological surveillance, alert and referral systems, community education, and mobilization.”

But of all the factors contributing to an increase of cases in Sierra Leone, it’s the lack of a basic necessity that’s the biggest offender: food.

Ravaged by a decade-long civil war, Sierra Leone’s failing economy meant it was already in a precarious position before the epidemic. Ranking No. 177 out of 187 countries on the UNDP Human Development Index, it registered some of the highest malnutrition rates in the world—including 15 percent acute malnutrition (considered emergency) among children under 5.

Now, with massive districts in the nation sealed off to prevent the spread of the virus, an already limited access to food has been further obstructed. While the World Food Programme has been working to feed more than 400,000 people in Sierra Leone, their efforts have reportedly not been enough. On Tuesday, the Associated Press reported “thousands” of Sierra Leoneans fleeing from their villages to find food.

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“The quarantine of Kenema, the third largest town in Sierra Leone, is having a devastating impact on trade—travel is restricted so trucks carrying food cannot freely drive around,” UK organization Disasters Emergency Committee said in a statement. “Food is becoming scarce, which has led to prices increasing beyond the reach of ordinary people.”

It’s a phenomenon Arthur Pratt, a drama teacher, filmmaker, youth organizer, and pastor living in Freetown, has been witnessing firsthand. “I’ve seen children suffering from Ebola,” says the 37-year-old, who was attempting to quiet a barking dog nearby as we speak. “There are infants, children who do not have people with the financial means to take care of them. They lack food, that’s a basic thing,” he says.

Pratt says the lack of food is a result of the mountainous terrain of Sierra Leone, and the remote villages that are interspersed throughout it. “The issue is people are living in villages and towns that are physically inaccessible by vehicle,” he says. In the case of food, helicopters can be used to deliver supplies—which hasn’t been happening as frequently as necessary.

But distance in relation to treatment centers seems to be the reason the Red Cross is spending hours collecting, removing, and burying bodies across the nation. “There are many people who are miles and miles away from centers—and these people cannot even afford to take care of themselves much less get to these centers,” Pratt says. Not that making it to a treatment center would necessarily change things. “We do not have enough of them. They are full,” he says. “There are no empty beds in Sierra Leone.”

If another case of Ebola arrives in the U.S., which is fairly likely at this point, the American public’s obsession with the epidemic will likely return. In the meantime, too much optimism is dangerous—and threatens to further weaken an international response that is already insufficient. Taking your eyes off a disaster doesn’t make it disappear.