West African Villagers Fear Ebola Will Escape From The Grave

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Since the outbreak began last March, more than 600 people have died. This mounting death toll is presenting families and health authorities with a grim new problem: What do you do with the bodies?


The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is getting worse. The World Health Organization has announced scores of new cases and dozens of deaths from the disease this month. Since the outbreak began in February, more than 600 people have died. The mounting toll is presenting families and health authorities with a grim new problem - what to do with the bodies. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports on how this dilemma is playing out in one town in eastern Sierra Leone.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Mattia James yesterday just wanted to bury his mother, Musa, behind her simple mud house. That's where his mother always wanted to be laid to rest, he says. But because she died from Ebola, some people in her village were apprehensive about having her buried there.

MATTIA JAMES: There's lots of fear among people about Ebola.

BEAUBIEN: People from a neighboring village down the valley were furious. After James had dug a grave for his mother, they filled the hole he'd just dug back in.

JAMES: My main purpose of crying - it's not because of the death now, but because the people nearby village stopped me not to bring my mother into my own village. And what is the problem?

BEAUBIEN: Ebola is highly contagious. But in order to get it you have to have direct contact with bodily fluids - sweat, saliva, vomit, blood. But there's a lot of confusion here about how it spreads. Moments after workers from the local health ministry arrived with James's mother's body in the back of a Land Cruiser, the local chief pulled up on a motorcycle.

BRAMA SAMANYANDIE: I know (unintelligible) you are upset. But for now - listen, listen.

BEAUBIEN: The chief, Chief Brama Samanyandie, said James must not bury his mother near their house. Instead, he must dig a new grave deep in the bush behind the village.

SAMANYANDIE: Because we have drinking waters around here, I don't know whether if we allow this burial to take over we affect my people. That's why I came here as a section chief. I'm responsible for this area. That's why I asked him to take the back of the town to dig the grave to bury the woman.

BEAUBIEN: The chief said people in the village are very afraid of Ebola and worried that the virus might escape from the grave. Health officials aren't worried about contaminating the water, but they are worried about people coming in contact with the body. That's why the corpse had been sprayed with a chlorine solution and was now sealed not inside just one body bag, but two. James and several relatives hacked out a clearing in the thick jungle behind the village and dug a second grave for his mother. None of the relatives were allowed to touch the body bag. Workers in medical scrubs, rubber boots and thick rubber gloves carried the body through the bush to the new grave. They then sprayed the body bag one more time with disinfectant before covering it with soil. As chaotic as Musa James's funeral was, at least it was attended by some of her relatives. Thirty-six other bodies had been buried just outside the Ebola Treatment Center here, often with just the medical workers as witnesses. There were no tombstone, no crosses, just single twigs stuck in the dirt to mark their graves. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Kailahun, Sierra Leone.

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