A new study by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies says that safe burial practices may have helped prevent the transmission of thousands of cases of Ebola during the epidemic in West Africa between 2013 and 2016.

More than 11,300 people died from Ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea before the epidemic was stopped in those countries in 2016.

Ebola is highly contagious and spread by direct contact with blood or other bodily fluids. Symptoms include a sudden fever, aching muscles, diarrhea and vomiting. 

Red Cross study

A co-author of the Red Cross Federation study, Amanda McClelland, says the traditional burial practice of washing and touching the dead was a major mode of transmission of Ebola during the outbreak in all three countries.

While isolating patients is key to preventing the spread of the disease, she says early burial is crucial to keeping Ebola in check.

“They can really produce super-spreading events where we get very large chains of transmission well beyond what a live case would cause in the community,” she said. “So, the infectiousness of the bodies increases. The virus is at its peak when a person dies. So, we see a much higher transmission from a body than we do from a live person.”

McClelland says the Red Cross had to change its approach in dealing with communities that adhered to traditional burial practices. Aid workers stopped talking about management of the remains and instead spoke about safe and dignified burials, she said.

Local volunteers

Burial teams made up entirely of local volunteers, gained the trust of the communities, which was critical to success, she said. In all, the teams provided more than 47,000 safe burials, accounting for more than 50 percent of all burials in the three countries during the outbreak.

This action, McClelland said, may have prevented more than 10,000 people from becoming infected with the virus, which is named for the Congolese river near where it was first identified in 1976.

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