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Mistrust, Anger Holds Guinea Back From Fighting Ebola


The Ebola epidemic seems to have reached a turning point in some of the worst hit African nations, including Guinea, where the outbreak began little more than year ago. But mistrust, anger and denial in some areas are threatening the government's goal to eradicate the virus by mid-March. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is back in the West African country where she first reported on Ebola last spring. She joins us from the capital, Conakry. Ofeibea, Guinea sounds like a kind of good-news-bad-news story when it comes to Ebola. What else can you tell us?

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Indeed. It's good news in that the numbers of cases are dropping here in Guinea. The bad news, though, is that we're still seeing denial. We're still seeing resistance. And this is to health workers and to the health message about Ebola. And there is such an atmosphere still of fear, of suspicion, of rumor that that is hampering this government goal of trying to eradicate, trying to beat Ebola by the middle of March.

MARTIN: So you are saying that there are fewer Ebola patients in treatment centers which is the good news but cases are still popping up all over the country?

QUIST-ARCTON: Indeed. And this is apparently a huge problem because although there is a sharp drop in infections, the geographical spread of the Ebola virus is the issue. The fact that health workers and responders can't get to all these pockets of infection in the East and the West, even in the South which was the epicenter of the epidemic. They are seeing cases that are near the Liberia border, near the Sierra Leone border. Unless there are zero cases in all three countries, the health workers tell us there is still an Ebola epidemic.

MARTIN: And you say there is all this denial still about the virus, Ofeibea. What does that denial look like? And how do you combat that?

QUIST-ARCTON: Some of the main problems are the fact that people are still hiding sick Ebola patients at home and not taking them to the hospitals, to the treatment centers. And the other huge problem is unsafe burials. Now unsafe burials come because people are still burying their dead without the authorities knowing. And often these are Ebola patients. We were with the Imams, the Muslim religious leaders, in a city called Kindia yesterday. And they were saying we have got to teach people this must stop. And another form of resistance that we have been learning about, the head of Doctors Without Borders - and they were the first responders here in Guinea - Jerome Mouton (ph), was telling us that he recently had a close shave when a community right here in the capital, Conakry, objected to their presence.

JEROME MOUTON: We decided to build a new treatment center in Conakry. And at one point, we were to organize sanitization of the population. There was a French ambassador, the U.S. ambassador, the governor of the city. They all run away. And we ran away. So when we get into the car, we had two angry young people with sticks running after us.

MARTIN: So international healthcare workers are feeling threatened themselves. What does this mean for the planning for the future?

QUIST-ARCTON: Just this week, Rachel, kids went back to school on Monday. They've been out of school since July last year. But in one area - well, one instance that we've been told of - the health authorities and the education ministry and UNICEF sent special Ebola kits to all schools to help them - i.e. they need to wash their hands in chlorinated water and so on. Apparently the community has destroyed these because what they say is, no, they're trying to contaminate us with Ebola. When they are sending these kits to children or when the health workers come to try and raise awareness, they are the ones. It's the outsiders who are bringing Ebola into the community. So that's the sort of fear and suspicion that has got to be overcome before there is any talk of eradicating Ebola here in Guinea.

MARTIN: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton on the line from Conakry, the capital of Guinea. Thanks so much, Ofeibea.

QUIST-ARCTON: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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