'We Must Act Now, And Heavily, To Contain This Disease'

Saran Daraba Kaba works as the executive secretary of the Mano River Union, the regional organization comprised of many of the countries hardest hit by the Ebola outbreak. She talks to Melissa Block about efforts to control the spread of the virus.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And now an African perspective on an Ebola crisis. Saran Daraba Kaba is a pharmacologist. She's also executive secretary of the Mano River Union. It's a regional organization in West Africa that includes three of the countries at the heart of the Ebola epidemic - Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. She has been in Washington this week, meeting with members of Congress about the epidemic. As Dr. Daraba told me because West Africa had not experienced an Ebola outbreak in the past and because health workers and technical resources are so limited there, it took months before a proper response was launched.

DARABA KABA: At the beginning, really, it was frustrating because we were all surprised. When you are surprised, you know coordination is a big problem. But now we know exactly and we have taken the decision that, really, all stakeholders should be on board. For example, each two days or three days, we are sending text messages.

BLOCK: Text messages.

KABA: Yes, for Guinea, we have 9 million cell phones. So we send text messages saying, OK, that is the way that this is - is da, da, da, da.

BLOCK: And this is how the disease is spread.

KABA: Exactly and please, be cautious. But that has a cost. For Guinea, for example, the text message is about $90,000 a day.

BLOCK: Just to send the text messages?

KABA: Send that 9 million cell phones, so we have asked the telephone companies to be part of the game. And the artists - we have called on them. So we have now some saying to young people, OK, if you have a family member who is sick, you should do - da, da, da - this behavior.

BLOCK: Through songs?

KABA: Yeah.

BLOCK: Giving them a message through music.

KABA: Songs, yes, but also - you know, the measures taken to stop the outbreak are against our cultural background.

BLOCK: What you mean?

KABA: In Africa, when you are sick, the first reaction - the first person to rely on is a family member. So in that case, you tell them, don't do that.

BLOCK: Go to the hospital.

KABA: Yeah, yeah.

BLOCK: You'll be quarantined.

KABA: Yeah, (unintelligible).

BLOCK: No one can see you.

KABA: So people feel very frustrated by saying, OK, my parent, my aunt, my daughter, my father, my husband is sick. And they don't want me to be close to him. It took time for people to understand they should not have any contact. And we explained to them that, yes, when somebody dies from Ebola, you cannot handle the rituals.

BLOCK: The rituals of washing the body?

KABA: Yes, washing the body, preparing the burial, and doing as - we say, no. The Red Cross has been given the task to do all rituals.

BLOCK: It's a lot to try to fight about and really deeply entrenched attitudes that you need to change. You do still hear from health workers in the region that people see health facilities as the place where people are dying. These do not seem like places where people are getting well, because the virus is so potent and so deadly.

KABA: You know, it is coming from - again, from our context. These are countries which have gone through two decades, deadly was and facilities are not there. You have not enough health care personnel to take care of people, so most of the people coming to the hospital are coming at the terminal period.

BLOCK: They're at end of the disease.

KABA: At the end of the disease, so that is why this impression of saying, OK, people come to the hospital just to die. We fought it by saying, OK, if for any reason you have these signs - high temperature, you are vomiting, you are having diarrhea - be cautious. You may have Ebola. Go to the next health care center or the next - the hospital so that they can see what you are suffering from.

BLOCK: What is your worst fear as you look at this outbreak and how it's been spreading?

KABA: The worst fear I could have, really - and I have - is that we don't get the needed support to contain the spreading of the disease. We must act now and heavily to contain this disease.

BLOCK: Dr. Daraba, thanks for coming in.

KABA: Thank you.

BLOCK: Saran Daraba Kaba is the executive secretary of the Mono River Union. It's a regional organization in West Africa that includes Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

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