One cousin fell ill and died. Then another got sick. Then another. Matengbe Dolley and her husband, Sekou, have lost seven relatives to the Ebola virus in less than a month. And from their home in Portland, they say it feels like there’s little they can do to help extended family in Liberia.
“It’s hard to see your family sick and you can’t do anything to help,” Sekou Dolley says. “You can’t see the body. It’s just a phone call and that’s all you get. You don’t know what happened to the body. You just know the person didn’t make it.”
The Dolleys are among more than 500 residents of Multnomah County who immigrated from West African countries where the world’s worst ever outbreak of Ebola has sickened nearly 5,000 people and killed half that many, according to a count maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Health officials here say it’s unlikely the virus will spread to the United States, and even if it did, the U.S. medical system has a plan in place to quash its spread. But that doesn’t mean the county or local families are helpless, says Dr. Amy Sullivan manager of Communicable Disease Services at the Multnomah County Health Department.
Sullivan and the county’s deputy health officer Dr. Jennifer Vines will meet with Portland’s West African community Friday, Sept. 19 to support families in how to talk to their loved ones about prevention and treatment in what has become a warlike environment of quarantines, curfews and shortages of food and fresh water.
Before this year’s epidemic, the largest Ebola outbreak occurred in 2000 in Uganda, where 425 people were infected. So far this year nearly 12 times that many people have been diagnosed – that’s more than twice as many as all other 28 outbreaks combined. Since the first reported outbreak in 1976, an average of 67 percent of those infected with Ebola die, according to an analysis of data maintained by the World Health Organization( WHO).
The WHO has blamed the spread of Ebola in part on a local mistrust of foreign aid recommendations, leading families in infected communities to hide patients, treat them at home and wash the bodies in preparation for burial as is custom in many cultures.
Sullivan, who worked on HIV outreach in Sierra Leone as a young epidemiologist, says she believes families and local leaders will have more luck than foreign aid workers at convincing their loved ones to forgo traditional burial practices. So Sullivan and Vines come prepared with hand-outs in French for families from countries where French is the national language.
“I hope they will talk to their family members about what they’re hearing,” says Sullivan. “Trust is essential to any work in a cross-cultural setting; where you have that trust, you can do the work.”
Nathaniel Karkula of the Oregon Association for Liberia says that was his expectation when he reached out to city and county officials seeking to hold a meeting for the West African community.
He says some people in Libera don’t understand what Ebola is, how to prevent it or how long to avoid family members who have survived. And even when families know the facts, it’s hard to turn their backs on tradition.
“If someone is sick, we show up. The idea of isolating someone, we don’t like it,” Karkula says. “But we want to make sure our families back home know this is real. This is your life.”
Friday’s event will be part education, part fundraiser for Tigard-based Medical Teams International (MTI), which has maintained an office in Monrovia for more than a decade. This is the first time they’ve tried working with emigrant communities to facilitate cooperation on the ground.
“I think it’s excellent, the community here wanting to lend their voices and influence their relatives,” says Debbie Doty, senior advisor for strategic partnerships with MTI. “They’ll hear the same message but he advantage is the immigrant community can dispel the fears and bring credibility to those messages.”
For now, Sekou and Matengbe Dolley say the message they need is one of triage. What do they say when a loved one is turned away from a hospital that doesn’t have beds or a clinic that doesn’t have medicine?
“If your family member is infected and they’re not accepted, they come back home,” Sekou Dolley says. “You’re not going to let them sleep outside. You’re not going to let them starve. There’s no hospital, so you’re forced to take care of them.”
WHAT: How to talk about Ebola with family overseas and fundraiser for Tigard-based Medical Teams International
WHEN: Friday, Sept. 19, 4 p.m.
WHERE: First Unitarian Church, 1034 SW 13th Ave., Portland