Ebola Myths and Facts: 9 Deadly Misconceptions

March 23, 2019
Photo by Kieran McConville

The best way to stop Ebola and other epidemics is to build trust and fight bad information with good — especially in affected communities.

With each Ebola outbreak — whether the deadliest-ever in 2014-16 in West Africa or the current Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo — recovery begins with building trust and fighting bad information with good. One of the biggest barriers to this are the myths that spread about Ebola, in Africa and beyond. 

Rampant fear and distrust of health authorities means those with symptoms of Ebola may refuse to seek treatment. Those diagnosed with Ebola will also flee isolation wards, thereby spreading the disease. In 2014, Concern Worldwide Sierra Leone Country Director Fiona McLysaght wrote: “In no small part, Ebola is  transmitted directly through myth and fear.” 

Here are 9 of those myths — many of which come with deadly (and avoidable) consequences. 

1. Ebola isn’t real

Earlier this year, Ebola survivor Agwandia Jermanine told The Guardian, “A lot of people in my community think Ebola isn’t real — they think the government made up the disease to scare people … to stop them voting.” This belies a general sense of mistrust between governments and citizens that plagues many of the countries hit hardest by Ebola. Unfortunately, it also means that it’s easier for the virus to spread. Understanding the reasoning that goes into this line of conspiracy theory is essential to correcting misinformation. 

2. Ebola is a politically-motivated disease spread by NGOs and health personnel

This is an especially deadly myth for Ebola health workers. In September 2014, residents of Womey, Guinea murdered a group of eight relief workers. The team included two doctors, as well as a priest who had founded a local clinic. The attack was motivated by distrust between villagers and the government, with one local police officer telling the Los Angeles Times that locals believed Ebola “is nothing more than an invention of white people to kill black people.” 

3. Governments have fabricated the Ebola scare to deflect attention from scandals or depopulate rebellious provinces

A related conspiracy theory to Ebola as a profit-making venture is the notion that Ebola is a bio-weapon designed to depopulate the planet. The New York Times explains that this particular conspiracy originated in September 2014 with an article published by Liberian newspaper The Daily Observer. A few weeks later, hip-hop artist Chris Brown tweeted to his then-13 million followers, “I don’t know … But I think this Ebola epidemic is a form of population control.” The Times added that “It’s not surprising that populist and anti-government conspiracies are rampant at a moment when opinion polls suggest that our trust in government has reached a record low.”

“This misinformation means that people who are diagnosed sometimes flee, rejecting the treatment that might save their lives, and simultaneously spreading the disease into untouched towns and villages.” — Fiona McLysaght, Country Director, Sierra Leone

4. If you go into a clinic, you’ll be given an injection to speed your death

“This misinformation means that people who are diagnosed sometimes flee, rejecting the treatment that might save their lives, and simultaneously spreading the disease into untouched towns and villages,” wrote McLysaght in 2014. A 2014 report by Al Jazeera quoted one Guinean resident as saying, “If we have a stomach ache we don’t go to hospital because doctors there will inject you and you will die.” A local of the DRC’s North Kivu province, Kavira Knanga, told The Guardian in January: “The problem with Ebola is that everyone is too frightened to seek help so they hide in their homes and in the forest.” 

In reality, those who experience Ebola symptoms — including fever, headache, sore throat, vomiting, diarrhoea, and in some cases internal and external bleeding (hemorrhagic fever) — may mistake these for other illnesses. A failure to recognize the correct disease can enable widespread exposure to others. This high risk for contagion can cause an Ebola outbreak to become an epidemic. What’s more, receiving professional supportive care for the virus — including rehydration and symptomatic treatment — can improve a patient’s survival rate. Drug trials are also currently underway in the DRC.  

Infection prevention and control (lPC) training for staff at Lumpa Health Center, conducted by Concern Worldwide.

5. Routine blood tests and school vaccinations are a campaign to infect children with Ebola

According to UNICEF, immunizations are one of the most cost-effective public health innovations. They help to prevent an estimated 2 to 3 million deaths per year. This is especially powerful for children in developing countries: The number of deaths of children under the age of 5 decreased by 89% in sub-Saharan Africa between 2000 and 2016. No Ebola vaccine currently exists. However, the WHO reports an investigational vaccine called rVSV-ZEBOV is currently being tested in the DRC. A successful test was held in the country’s northwestern province of Equateur in July of 2018. Initial results are promising in protecting against the Ebola virus.

6. Ebola can be cured by home remedies, like a mixture of hot chocolate, coffee, milk, raw onions, and sugar

In 2014, Fiona McLysaght noted that some of the changes they sought to curtail the epidemic in Sierra Leone “challenge deeply-rooted practices or traditions.” This includes traditions like eating wild animals to augment food security and disease treatment. Effective Ebola treatment must happen with trained health workers and in an Ebola treatment center to both ensure patient recovery and prevent further spread of the disease. Active surveillance in health facilities and within the community are essential to curbing an epidemic while also increasing preparation and resilience for future outbreaks. During the 2014-16 West African Ebola epidemic, Concern trained frontline health workers on proper hygiene, steps to avoid disease transmission, and what to do if they suspect someone is sick, who in turn trained their fellow community members. 

 “In no small part, Ebola is  transmitted directly through myth and fear.” — Fiona McLysaght

7. Ebola can be treated at home

Isolation-based treatment (in facilities equipped to manage the Ebola virus) is unique in comparison to other diseases where families can gather to care directly for whoever is sick. “Eye contact is the only connection Ebola-affected patients will have, since the doctors and nurses attending to them are covered head to toe in protective clothing,” wrote McLysaght in 2014. “For both children and adults, the prospect of being alone as they fight this disease is terrifying. For healthy relatives, it is hard to accept.” 

In response to this, Concern worked with the Ministry of Health and health workers to institute robust infection prevention control measures in health facilities. We also established triaging mechanisms so that those with suspected Ebola could receive timely and appropriate treatment without compromising or infect other patients seeking routine services. 

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8. Body parts are being harvested in the Ebola isolation units

Al Jazeera also reported in 2014 that “many Guineans say local and foreign healthcare workers… [invented Ebola] as a means of luring Africans to clinics to harvest their blood and organs.” The tension that comes from burying someone who has died of Ebola connects to this myth. In many countries affected by the outbreak, bodies are traditionally washed by hand and touched during the funeral rites. During an epidemic, unsafe traditional burial practices can spread disease and contribute exponentially to the numbers infected. In cases like EVD, the deceased contain a high viral load. 

To contain the epidemic, the Government of Sierra Leone mandated strict burial laws that restricted contact with the deceased. As a result, burial teams were often attacked. Concern is one of the many NGOs that has worked with communities and families to ensure safe and dignified burial for those who die of Ebola.

9. Ebola is a death sentence

A global average for those diagnosed with Ebola a 50% survival rate. In some areas, the death rate for confirmed cases of Ebola can be as low as 25%. For survivors, however, the recovery work continues. Fatmata Peeter, a traditional birth attendant from Sierra Leone, contracted Ebola in 2014. In an effort to curtail the epidemic, her neighbors were quarantined for 21 days. Although she survived, the Ebola survivor was met with stigma when she returned to her village: “Many people would not come close to me,” she said. “They refused me in the community. They blamed me for their problems, for the quarantine. But now they see me, and they listen to me. Now when I speak about Ebola, everyone comes to hear what Fatmata has to say on the issue.”

That said, many of the survivors of the 2014-16 epidemic have significant secondary illness or consequences of EVD. Some experienced issues with vision, others have chronic conditions or pain or developed mental health issues. These are notable disabilities that have serious lifelong consequences, and as such require additional considerations for survivors of EVD.

Psychosocial support during the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone

Members of burial Team 2 receive psychosocial support during the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone.

How Concern is busting Ebola myths with facts

Combating the disease once people are infected is difficult since no vaccine or drug is currently available. Therefore, Concern’s focus with Ebola has been on preventative care and building community resilience. We’re fortunate to be trusted members in many of these communities. We had been working in Sierra Leone for 18 years when the West African Ebola outbreak hit, and have been working in the DRC for 16 years. 

This trust has helped as we have reached out to raise awareness and train village leaders and traditional healers. In rural communities, these are often the figures people turn to in times of crisis. We also made radio jingles to educate the general public, supported the country’s overburdened healthcare system, and provided protective equipment to medical workers.

Recently trained care providers at the Nyamilima workshop, DRC (April 2019)

Recently trained care providers at the Nyamilima workshop, DRC (April 2019)

Sierra Leonean community leader Ibrahim Kiss-Turay was one example of progress through compassionate myth-busting. Just one day after he participated in a Concern-run Ebola orientation, Ibrahim learned that a community member had fled an Ebola medical facility. 

Because of his training, Ibrahim immediately understood the risk this posed to his village. He mobilized community health workers to monitor the situation and called the Concern Response Mechanism phone line. Concern then alerted the Ministry of Health and Sanitation. The Ministry sent an ambulance to the scene, which brought the patient to an observation center. The house he’d been staying in was disinfected.

Ibrahim credits his Concern Ebola training with equipping him with the knowledge and skills to react quickly and decisively. His timely action protected his community from a potentially deadly threat.

How can you help? 

Your donation to Concern can not only help to stave off the spread of epidemics like Ebola, but also save lives through the myth-busting community outreach and training that is core to our work. Donate now to help keep people like Ibrahim trained, and communities like those in North Kivu healthy and safe.