Rumor Patrol: No, A Snake In A Bag Did Not Cause Ebola

Jul 22, 2014
Originally published on July 23, 2014 4:57 pm

"A lady had a snake in a bag. When somebody opened the bag, that made the lady die."

That's the beginning of a story that Temba Morris often hears about the origins of Ebola. Morris runs a government health clinic in a remote village near Sierra Leone's border with Guinea. According to the story, somebody else then looked inside the bag.

"And the one who opened the bag also died," is what Morris hears next. The snake escaped into the Sierra Leone bush.

So there you have it: Ebola is an evil snake that will kill you if you look at it.

The striking thing about this story, which is told and retold, is that Ebola really did come here from Guinea, and it currently is out of the bag.

But narratives like this are a dangerous distraction when health officials are dealing with a virus that spreads by human-to-human contact — and a lack of knowledge about how to stay safe.

In the remote northeastern corner of Sierra Leone, dozens of new Ebola cases are being reported each week. As the virus spreads, so do rumors about the terrifying disease.

The first is that Ebola doesn't exist. Some say it's a ploy to extract money from the international aid agencies. Others say the people aren't dying from Ebola, they're dying from a curse.

Then there are people who accept that it exists but have unorthodox ideas about how it got there.

In the initial days, some people said it could spread through drinking water and mosquitoes.

Given that it kills the majority of the people who get infected, Ebola is scary enough. If you believe it's water- or mosquito-borne, it becomes almost overwhelmingly frightening.

The other central theme that pops up in many of the rumors about Ebola is that the white people brought it.

A plague hits, and then a bunch of foreigners in spacesuits come and whisk away the corpses in shiny white body bags. There have been stories that this is all a scheme to harvest organs from the locals.

So when some people got sick, they fled to the forest or hid with relatives, making it more likely they'd infect others. Some towns in Guinea have refused to allow any foreign health workers to enter at all.

Dr. Tim Jagatic of Doctors Without Borders says the misperceptions are understandable: "We created a hospital, and a lot of people started to get sick and die. It's very difficult for them to make a connection that we are here to help."

Winning the communications battle is critical, he says: "The most effective way for us to be able to end this epidemic is to focus on public health measures. It is learning about how this disease is transmitted, increasing the level of hygiene amongst the people in the villages, demystifying and destigmatizing this disease."

Five months after this outbreak started, efforts are underway to try to do that. Posters from the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health listing the symptoms are plastered in markets and on public buildings.

Community elders are being recruited and trained to hold Ebola information sessions in their villages.

And a group of teens from the local Red Cross has written several songs explaining the basics of Ebola. One starts with a basic assertion: "Ebola is real."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is already the largest ever recorded. It has claimed more than 600 lives, and numerous challenges remain to get it under control. One of those challenges is just explaining to people how the disease spreads and how to protect against it. NPR's Jason Beaubien recently visited one of the areas hardest hit by the outbreak, and he found that rumors about the disease are making matters worse.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: In the remote northeastern corner of Sierra Leone, people are terrified of getting killed by a disease they've never seen before and don't understand. This is the first Ebola outbreak ever in the region. And as the number of deaths increases, rumors about what causes the disease are everywhere. One of the most popular explanations for the outbreak involves a snake, a bag and a woman from Guinea.

TEMBA MORRIS: A lady had a snake in the bag when somebody opened up that bag. So that was what made the lady to die, which - the bag - nobody else should have seen it.

BEAUBIEN: Temba Morris runs a government health clinic in a remote village near the border with Guinea. He says, according to the story, then somebody else went and looked inside the bag...

MORRIS: ...And the one who opened the bag also died.

BEAUBIEN: And then the snake escaped into the Sierra Leone countryside. Just seeing the snake, according to this narrative, is enough to kill you. The striking thing about this story is that Ebola really did come from Guinea, and it currently is out of the bag. There are other myths floating around that the fatal disease is spread by mosquitoes or drinking water.

The problem with these rumors is that people are worrying about snakes and mosquitoes when they really need to be worried about other people. Ebola is transmitted by direct contact with bodily fluids of someone who's already sick. Another story that keeps popping up is that Ebola is spread by white people. Dr. Tim Jagatic with Doctors Without Borders says this border is also somewhat understandable.

TIM JAGATIC: We created a hospital, and a lot of people started to get sick and die. Like, they're - it's very difficult for them to make a connection that we're here to help.

BEAUBIEN: The full-body suits that health care workers use to protect themselves from the Ebola virus make them look like aliens. Some locals have suggested that these creatures are here harvesting human organs. These rumors have an impact. When people get sick, some of them refuse to seek medical treatment. Others flee to more remote villages, where they end up spreading the virus even further. Dr. Jagatic says, explaining how you get this disease is still a key element to containing the outbreak.

JAGATIC: The most effective way for us to be able to end this epidemic is to focus on public health measures. It is learning about how this disease is transmitted, increasing the level of hygiene amongst the people in the villages, demystifying and destigmatizing this disease.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing in African).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in African).

BEAUBIEN: And five months after this outbreak started, efforts are underway to try to do that. Posted from the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health listing the symptoms are plastered in markets and on public buildings. Community elders are being recruited and trained to do Ebola information talks in their villages. This group of teens from the local Red Cross has written several songs explaining the basics of Ebola.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

GROUP: (Singing in African).

WOMAN: (Singing in African).

BEAUBIEN: This one starts with just the simple assertion that Ebola is real. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

GROUP: (Singing in African). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.