Dr. John Mattia is one of two practicing Ophthalmologists in Sierra Leone and also the medical director of two hospitals in Sierra Leone supported by CBM, namely; Lowell & Ruth Gess United Methodist Church Eye Hospital (Kissy) in Freetown and Baptist Mission’s Eye Hospital in Lunsar. In this interview Dr. Mattia speaks about the Ebola Sensitisation Project run by the hospital, and the progress made in educating the public about this debilitating disease.
What is the Ebola Sensitisation project about?
The Ebola Sensitisation Project, initiated in November 2014, is a social mobilisation campaign aiming at educating communities about Ebola- the disease, the causes and prevention and safety measures. We conduct awareness raising workshops on the hospital premises and then organise social mobilisation activities for communities in villages, towns as well as cities mostly in the capital city of Freetown and its environs and the Port Loko district in northern Sierra Leone. An important component of our awareness-raising activities is training religious and community leaders- we target pastors and imams in churches and mosques, as well as school teachers. In this way a wider reach and access to information is ensured. We have distributed dozens of tap (Veronica) buckets with chlorine and medicated soap, Ebola T-shirts and caps, and hundreds of Ebola posters and handbills in the targeted communities. In addition, we have held several radio discussions and supported the broadcast of Ebola jingles/songs on local radio stations.
And how do you target disabled communities in Sierra Leone?
The disabled community is included in our outreach programs- in fact we are one of the few organisations in the entire country that deemed it necessary to include persons with disabilities. We have adapted our message and our materials so that they are completely accessible to persons who are blind or deaf. We use sign language interpreters, and have distributed Ebola brochures in the form of Braille to the Educational Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired (ECBVI) in Freetown and the blind school in Makeni.
Ebola undermined delivery of eye health activities and other health care services last year. To what extent has this situation changed?
Yes indeed, the Ebola epidemic greatly affected eye care services in both CBM-supported projects in Sierra Leone, particularly at the Baptist Mission’s Eye Hospital in Lunsar which is situated in a district that was under quarantine for several months. However, since the easing of the state of emergency in the country with the lifting of quarantine on whole districts in early January 2015, the work situation has gradually been improving with steady increase in patient turnout in both eye hospitals. We are also in the process of resuming eye surgeries as early as the first week of March, 2015. One paramount system that is left to be put in place for both hospitals though is infection prevention and control (IPC). The staff members of both hospitals need the right training in this direction followed by the establishment of IPC protocols.
Other health care services, initially closed during the height of the epidemic, have also opened to the public and are being delivered with utmost caution. However, several hospitals are still wary of opening theatres for surgery.
Have you faced any challenges impeding your work?
The ban on public gatherings by the Sierra Leonean government hinders our work a bit. Mass gatherings are allowed for awareness raising purposes, but the number should be limited and manageable. Hence we make sure our community sensitisation activities are smaller- currently around 200 people attend them. We also organise Ebola video shows in churches and mosques with smaller gathering of people. In bigger cities we stand on the streets with a loud speaker and hand out information leaflets.
What are your thoughts on the current situation regarding Ebola?
Ebola is still a serious issue in Sierra Leone. However much has improved in the past few months, especially in terms of infrastructure- there are more treatment centres and much more awareness about Ebola. At present 1,637 patients can be accommodated in treatment centres, which wasn’t the case earlier. Ebola cases are also on the decline- at the height of the crisis there were over 300 cases per week, now the average is about 70 per week.
Communities are much more receptive to our awareness activities as well. Initially there was a lot of misinformation and wariness about Ebola. Now the public has seen for themselves the devastating effects of this disease, and are willing to do all it takes to eradicate Ebola from Sierra Leone. So I would say the situation is improving slowly, but there is still a lot that needs to be done as new Ebola figures keep on fluctuating.
Our appreciation goes to CBM for making the funds available for this project. We also thank the wider international community for the help they have offered in order to contain and eventually eradicate Ebola in Sierra Leone in particular and West Africa in general.