By Cooper Inveen
Freetown, Sierra Leone – Standing in line at a small, street side pharmacy just off this port city’s main drag, a well-clad woman is buying a crate of hand sanitizer. After the pharmacist informs her that this is the last of his stock, she buys up the lot and leaves wearing a disgruntled expression, disappointed that she couldn’t purchase any more.
Seconds after she walks out the door, a young man in a stained cotton t-shirt and torn jeans take a wad of gum out of his mouth to give to his friend before approaching the counter. His friend happily begins chewing the used, saliva-covered treat. An excellent disease transmission strategy if there ever was one.
So goes the fight here against one of the world’s most frightening infectious diseases – Ebola.
This is an unusual outbreak of Ebola – unusual because of its size, nearly 700 dead so far, and its West African epicenter. Ebola, a viral disease that causes massive bleeding and usually death, was discovered in DR Congo in 1976 and erupts on occasion in parts of East Africa. But this outbreak has gained wider international attention for its strength, for its continued spread throughout the region and because of the toll it is taking on health care workers.
Yet, here at ground zero, the problem is that many of those most at risk don’t think it’s a real threat.
“If I was to judge the main cause of death, it would have to be denial – that it doesn’t exist at all,” said Sheik Bawoh, editor of the Freetown newspaper Global Times.
Since the outbreak started, Bawoh has spent more time in the Ebola-ridden east than any other local journalist, desperate to understand the plague that has decimated the areas surrounding his childhood home.