This post was written by Hatchet reporter Sadie Ruben.
A year after Ebola broke out in West Africa, why have only two countries been declared free of the disease?
That’s the question anthropologists sought to answer Friday at GW during a forum hosted by the American Anthropological Association.
Eight panelists joined the association’s chair Susan Shepler, an associate professor at American Unviersity, to pinpoint the issues associated with the epidemic and discuss how to address the challenges of eradicating the disease in the region.
Here are three key takeaways from the event:
1. A trust gap
One of the biggest challenges to containing the disease in West Africa has been the backlash health and security workers have faced from communities distrustful of the government.
Young people in Sierra Leone have fought back against officials removing Ebola victims for burial, for example.
“The epidemic is evolving quickly while behavioral responses are evolving quickly,” Doug Henry, an anthropology professor at the University of North Texas said.
Tensions have flared when health officials flanked by security teams try to enter villages but are met with disgruntled and sometimes violent communities, said Daniel Hoffman, an anthropologist at the University of Washington.
Hoffman said officials can avoid clashes with the communities by recognizing the fear and uncertainty that these they are facing.
“One of the things we wanted to recommend is that people recognize that the initial point of contact with communities that are being asked to do things that are difficult and uncomfortable is absolutely decisive,” Hoffman said.
2. Food shortages
But even if health workers and government officials eradicate Ebola, the three countries most impacted by the disease – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – will likely face residual problems, like food shortages.
University of Michigan anthropology professor Michael McGovern said rice harvests will be hard hit because of the challenge for farmers to reach their fields. It now takes about two hours to reach the rice fields, which means birds, rodents and other animals are getting to the rice first.
“In the context of Ebola peaking in these three countries – all rice-growing countries and where rice is the main staple food – what we’re going to be getting is half and quarter harvests,” he said. “This is going to have an effect on people’s nutrition for the entire coming year.”
McGovern said the international community should plan to supply major food support to the region for the next two years.
3. Keeping African culture alive
Another difficulty in preventing the spread of Ebola is tied to traditional burial practices in the region that involve direct contact between the deceased and family members.
Bodies of recently deceased Ebola victims are most infectious, but health and safety officials have struggled to keep communities from stopping their practices to keep from being infected.
Mary Moran, a professor of anthropology and African studies at Colgate University, said communities should safely bury the bodies of the deceased and hold a ceremony to commemorate the victims at a later date.
Communities have worked together to come up with safe burial practices in infected countries.
“Families value being able to see the body, a question of visibility,” Moran said. “The best practices that seem to be emerging are ones in which there are provisions for safe viewing of the body.”