By BRONWEN DACHS, Catholic News Service | Published January 8, 2015
CAPE TOWN, South Africa (CNS)—Pope Francis will boost the church’s response to Ebola in West Africa through an initiative that focuses on pastoral care as well as health and education, a Vatican official told Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Monrovia.
Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, met with Sirleaf and Liberia’s three bishops Dec. 18 in Monrovia. Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo, health adviser for Caritas Internationalis, attended the meeting and told Catholic News Service caring for orphans who face rejection after losing parents to Ebola will be among priorities.
Cardinal Turkson, who spent two days in Sierra Leone and Liberia meeting with church and other leaders, told the president of the pope’s “solidarity and concern,” said Msgr. Vitillo, who represents Caritas at U.N. agencies in Geneva.
The death toll from Ebola in Liberia, neighboring Sierra Leone and Guinea, the three worst affected countries in West Africa, has risen to nearly 7,400 from more than 19,000 cases, the World Health Organization said Dec. 20.
Sirleaf thanked the cardinal for all the work the church has done since the outbreak started in March and noted “her joy at the reopening of St Joseph’s Hospital,” Msgr. Vitillo said in a Dec. 21 telephone interview from Monrovia, Liberia.
St. Joseph’s Hospital in Monrovia, run by the Hospitaller Brothers of St. John of God and “crucial to the city’s health care,” had to close after many caregivers, including doctors and priests, died of the hemorrhagic fever, he said.
Infection controls have been put in place and the maternity section was the first part of the hospital to reopen, said Msgr. Vitillo, who visited Sierra Leone and Liberia Dec. 14-22.
Several doctors and one laboratory technician at the hospital who had Ebola are managing the screening process because they are now immune to the disease, he said.
“Nobody enters the hospital without being screened for signs of Ebola,” which is spread via bodily fluids. Separate areas of the hospital have been set up for those infected and those free of Ebola to avoid health workers and others becoming infected, he said.
Symptoms of the disease, which has no known cure, include vomiting, diarrhea and internal and external bleeding.
As well as St Joseph’s Hospital, the church in Liberia runs 17 health clinics around the country.
Pope Francis’ initiative will fund the “strengthening of church health care structures” in affected countries and “boost church efforts to provide special protection for orphans,” Msgr. Vitillo said.
It also will “help parishes provide food and other support to families who are placed under quarantine for 21 days” when a member of the household is found to be infected, he said.
Spiritual and pastoral care for people who have lost loved ones is essential and will be supported by the pope’s initiative, Msgr. Vitillo said, noting that “rejection and stigmatizing of the sick is prevalent in all three countries” most affected by Ebola.
“There is still much fear and ignorance about the disease, which is why we need to continue our education work in parishes,” he said.
Catholic schools in Liberia, closed since early August when a state of emergency was declared, “will need help when they reopen,” and the initiative will provide this, Msgr. Vitillo said.
Sierra Leone accounts for the most cases of Ebola, close to 9,000, against nearly 8,000 for Liberia, which has shown recent improvement after the epidemic soared there in August, the WHO said.
Msgr. Vitillo added an extensive visit to Sierra Leone to his planned trip to Liberia after news that Sierra Leone was suffering a significant rise in new infections, he said.
As well as enabling him to assess the situation directly, the visit provided the opportunity “to give a message of solidarity to the church here, as well as of hope,” he said in an earlier telephone interview from Freetown, Sierra Leone.
“This is the first time Ebola has affected cities,” Msgr. Vitillo said, noting that in Freetown most people live in overcrowded conditions, where disease spreads easily.
“Ebola is new to West Africa and we are learning as we respond,” he said.
Ebola survivors “need to be welcomed and reintegrated into their communities,” but this is not happening because of fear, Msgr. Vitillo said.
Many people do not understand that survivors “cannot get Ebola again or pass it on once they have recovered,” he said.
In cases where orphans are rejected by their extended families, the church is “providing temporary protection measures and then trying to reunite them with their families,” he said.
In Port Loko district in northern Sierra Leone, Msgr. Vitillo visited two cemeteries where the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services has taken responsibility for managing burials.
With many people contracting the disease from touching the highly infectious dead bodies of victims, the government banned traditional rituals in which bodies are washed and prepared for burial by family members.
Church agencies are now providing “safe and dignified burials” where health teams ensure no infection and graves are marked with the names of the deceased, Msgr. Vitillo said.
Also, families and religious leaders are able to hold services at cemeteries, which “provide a great deal of comfort” to the bereaved, he said.