Ebola and Cultural Misunderstandings

The spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa has generated fear over the possible global spread of the disease due to traveling, improper health care, and the potential transmission of disease through bodily fluid exchange or, less likely, airborne contamination.

Experts generally trace the origins of Ebola to fruit bats which can carry the disease without being affected themselves. Once these bats infect animals or humans, the virus spreads through direct contact of body fluids or blood. The resulting symptoms resemble those of malaria and meningitis, including muscle pain, sore throat, fever, vomiting, and diarrhea.

An important aspect of Ebola to consider is the way in which West African communities affected by the virus handle the bodies of the deceased. The virus can still be transmitted after an afflicted individual has passed; “Those that have just died are teeming with virus, in all their fluids” (Daily Beast).  Therefore, cultural practices, such as the burial ceremonies common to many West African communities, are issues of great concern to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Consequentially, the WHO has issued guidelines for medical workers and families seeking to retrieve the bodies of deceased loved ones. The recommendations include the following: “Be aware of the family’s cultural practices and religious beliefs…help the family understand why some practices cannot be done because they place the family or others at risk for exposure…explain to the family that viewing the body is not possible” (Daily Beast).

Culture again becomes important when one considers that in many areas where the virus is spreading, literacy rates are 35% or less, rendering many community members unable to heed WHO warnings and contributing to mistrust in medical treatment facilities (Daily Beast). This mistrust, in conjunction with fear of the disease itself, fuels the anger often felt by these individuals when medical guidelines and concerns prevent them from carrying out traditional burial ceremonies.

While the WHO and other medical workers justify their treatment of the deceased as an important effort in containing Ebola’s spread, it cannot be denied that such efforts come at a cost. In doing so, are we imposing upon the rights of the deceased one’s family by not allowing them to see the body let alone touch and kiss it? Is there a way we can avoid this conflict?

These questions must be a part of discussions in hospitals and by medical experts. As it stands, cultural conflicts can paint medical staff as an enemy – an enemy which demands diseased individuals report to the hospital only to send their dead bodies away for disposal under medical professionals’ supervision, deprived of burial rites.

Clearly the issues at play in the Ebola spread and containment efforts in West Africa constitute a time-sensitive polemic. The World Health Organization prioritizes the safety of others over a family’s right to see and touch a loved one for the last time. These medical practices address immediate issues, but we must consider their long-term effects on West African cultural practices and perceptions of the Western world.