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Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

Digba Massaquoi waits with her 5-year-old son, Lahai, who is ill, at the health clinic in Benduma, outside Bo, Sierra Leone. Beside her on the bench are insecticide-treated mosquito nets provided by Imagine No Malaria as part of an integrated health campaign.

Fighting malaria means fighting Ebola

By Julia Frisbie*
August 15, 2014 (Imagine No Malaria)

The biggest Ebola outbreak in recorded history is sweeping across Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, and has a foothold in Nigeria. The World Health Organization has reported that 1,069 people in those countries have died from Ebola. The disease has been declared a public health emergency of international concern because it is highly contagious, has no cure, and has a death rate of up to 90 percent in some outbreaks. 

United Methodist health workers equipped by Imagine No Malaria to fight malaria are now also fighting Ebola. The same trained and skilled health professionals are on the front lines. 

“It is a blessing and a gift that a strengthened infrastructure is in place, thanks to the ministry of Imagine No Malaria,” said the Rev. Gary Henderson, executive director of Imagine No Malaria.  “No one dreamed that the church would be called upon in this way.”

Today, fighting malaria means fighting Ebola. Imagine No Malaria alone is not equipped to launch an emergency response to the Ebola epidemic, but we are part of a global denomination armed with the belief that the world is our parish. The people of The United Methodist Church are responding with supplies, grant money and advocacy. Your donations are making a difference in this fight.

Imagine No Malaria supports programs in all four countries where Ebola is present, and our comprehensive approach has strengthened hospitals and health posts.

Misinformation and denial are keeping sick people from getting help. Some people are hiding from government officials and medical teams because they fear that if they go into quarantine, they will never see their loved ones again. Since the early symptoms of malaria and Ebola are similar, many malaria patients are not getting treatment. This crisis jeopardizes the progress The United Methodist Church has made toward improving access to health care.

“In the Ebola crisis, communication precedes prevention and treatment,” said the Rev. Larry Hollon, top staff executive of United Methodist Communications, in a blog post. “The contagion cannot be contained without greater effort at sanitation, isolation of sick people, and proper handling and burial of the deceased. And this has to be communicated effectively and widely. In these circumstances, a clear message saves lives.”

Imagine No Malaria infrastructure helps

The people of The United Methodist Church are responding in many ways to the Ebola crisis. Many missionaries serving in the affected countries have chosen to stay and fight the disease alongside their brothers and sisters. Through the United Methodist Committee on Relief, both Sierra Leone and Liberia have received grants for supplies, especially personal protective equipment such as gloves and facemasks. Protecting health workers is a priority because caring for Ebola patients puts them at high risk.

Many hospitals in West Africa have simply shut their doors because they lack safety gear to protect their staff. However, several United Methodist hospitals and health clinics have stayed open, thanks to support from UMCOR and missionary staff. Ganta United Methodist Hospital in Liberia is near the border with Guinea, where the outbreak first occurred. The hospital is constructing a treatment unit specifically for Ebola.

“It is the only major facility open within a 100-mile radius,” wrote Dr. Wilfred S. Boayue, chair of the Liberia Annual Conference Health Board. “We keep reminding the staff to be very careful and use whatever protective gear they have to remain safe. In addition to their duties at the hospital, they have formed a task force to collaborate with the city and county government in community awareness campaigns, including messages on the local radio station.”

This type of communication is crucial, since Ebola was relatively unknown in West Africa before the outbreak. United Methodists have provided grant money for radio programming, television ads, posters and text-message alerts.

A big part of the fight against Ebola is a fight against fear. “If people don’t trust the government and the health care providers, they’re not going to get help,” said Shannon Trilli, UMCOR global health consultant.

United Methodists are working to get correct information to the people who need it most. In a statement, Liberian Bishop John G. Innis wrote, “United Methodist pastors, district superintendents and Sunday school teachers must share the information about the Ebola virus with their local churches and districts.”

Advocacy, prayer needed

Bishop John K. Yambasu of Sierra Leone chairs the Religious Leaders Task Force on Ebola.

“Our major focus is teaching the people the practices of personal hygiene as the only effective and sustainable way of preventing the disease,” he said. He noted that 80 percent of Sierra Leoneans belong to a faith group. Because they often trust their faith leaders more than they trust their elected officials, faith groups will be key players in changing the public discourse. “We work towards increasing community awareness and education,” Yambasu said.

You can help get the word out by sharing this article. The more international attention this epidemic receives, the more governments and organizations will engage in sending needed funds, supplies and health care workers. The United Methodist Church is a key partner in the fight against malaria, so we are in a good position to advocate for a swift Ebola response.

Prayer is another way to be in solidarity with people who face Ebola. United Methodists around the world activated their prayer chains last week as Yambasu called for three days of prayer and fasting. (Click here to read a prayer by Janjay Innis, young adult missionary and the bishop’s daughter.)

We also must pray for our brothers and sisters in other parts of Africa who, while not directly affected by Ebola, still face serious health challenges, including malaria. Imagine No Malaria continues to work toward health and healing in 11 other sub-Saharan African countries.

Imagine No Malaria is not just about malaria. It is about health. It is about community. It is about creating  strong and lasting health systems. When hospitals are equipped to deal with malaria, they also can rise to the challenges of other diseases. When you donate through Imagine No Malaria, you join a global movement of The United Methodist Church to end preventable deaths and improve lives while at the same time strengthening health systems.

*Frisbie is an Imagine No Malaria field coordinator in the Pacific Northwest and a writer and regular contributor to www.umcor.org.