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Pujehun achieves 42 days zero Ebola case

- Chairman explains secret behind success

January 9, 2015 By Alusine Sesay in Pujehun

Pujehun District, in southern Sierra Leone, yesterday (8 January) achieved the World Health Organization’s benchmark of recording zero new Ebola infection spanning 42 days.

The district first recorded a confirmed case of Ebola on 8 August, 2014 at Kortumahun village in the Malen Chiefdom, with the last confirmed case recorded on 26 November last year at Bendu village, also in Malen Chiefdom.

In all, the district – which borders Kenema and Bo district, as well as shares common boundary with Liberia – recorded 31 confirmed cases, with 24 deaths and 7 survivors.

Being the first district to record such a remarkable success in the fight against the dreaded Ebola virus disease, the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) on Wednesday dispatched a group of journalists to engage stakeholders and in knowledge sharing on the strategies used to achieve the WHO benchmark of 42 days zero new case.

“We never waited for funding from government but used the available resources we had to fight the Ebola in the district,” Sadiq Silla, Pujehun District Council chairman, said. “The Ebola never dismantled our governance structure in the district and we made sure that we brought all stakeholders including councillors, women’s groups, paramount chiefs, security and youths on board to fight the disease in the district.”

Chairman Silla noted that it was challenging at the beginning of the outbreak and that, “We sometimes wanted to go into physical fight with some stakeholders but we overcame all our challenges. We had to meet from morning to 12 midnight, brainstorming and planning the way forward.”

He said one of the first strategies he employed was to place a moratorium on all trade fairs – locally called Luma or Ndorwei – in the district. And as expected, the measure was met with strong local opposition, including threat to his life.

“People cried me down for taking such a step since that is one of the main livelihoods of majority of the people in the Pujehun District. My house was physically attacked and I have to thank the police who protected me from the mobs. I have to leave my house and was sleeping way at Malen for fear of being attacked by the youths,” Silla narrated his ordeal.

He revealed that local authorities in the district closed all markets, drug stores and entertainment centres before even President Ernest Bai Koroma pronounced public health emergency regulations in August last year. He said that they engaged and got consent from religious leaders in the district, who endorsed a ban on public worship in churches and mosques throughout the month of October.

“We had the fullest support of religious leaders in the district,” he maintained.

Before the outbreak of the Ebola, he said there was already a health structure in place referred to as the District Health Coordinating Committee (DHCC), chaired by him.

“We just cascaded the existing structures into the Ebola fight without waiting for the central government to tell us what to do. We brought together all the existing structures and set up a taskforce which we used to fight the disease in the district,” Chairman Silla said.

He noted that 70% of their success depended on the vigilance of the security forces who left no stone unturned to enforce regulations set up by the District Council, while 20% goes to the taskforce and 10% to the health personnel in the district, adding that the district was the first to set up Ebola checkpoints and that the fight was largely decentralized with everybody fighting in their community.

He commended civil society organizations and non-governmental organizations who he said supported the district in diverse ways to successfully beat the virus.

Coordinator of the Pujehun District Ebola Response Committee (DERC), Alie Bao, said the district initially struggled to achieve the WHO benchmark but their leadership acted fast and used local initiatives to fight against the dreadful virus.

He said everybody in the district was treated equally and that “nobody was a sacred cow and everybody was treated according to the law”.

According to him, the secret behind their success was that indigenes of the district individualized and personalized the fight, while information sharing was key in their fight against the virus.

Dilating on sustaining the success, Bao said DERC has drafted a proposal to put in place border security monitoring in which they would engage youth living along the Liberian border.

Coordinator of the Office of National Security (ONS) in the district, Samuel Tarawally, noted that their success story came about as a result of five thematic principles – effective leadership/coordination, accountability, engagement, communication and enforcement – they employed.

“All our decisions were based on effective engagement. Before stopping all public worship, we engaged all religious leaders and had their consent. We made sure that we sensitize people at an early stage,” he said.

Local Unit Commander of the Pujehun Police Division, Nathaniel Brewah, said that as the outbreak was reported in Kailahun, eastern Sierra Leone, they wasted no time in starting enforcing the law.

“To curtail the trade Ndorwei or luma (trade fair) was not easy since it was the main livelihood of the people,” he revealed, adding that movement within the district was a big challenge to the police, but for “…the support of stakeholders who were ready to offer us their vehicles to undertake patrols and enforce the law”.

He said they mounted checkpoints, thanks to Socfin Agricultural Company, who rendered financial and material support to personnel deployed at those checkpoints. He noted that they have maintained a very cordial relationship with the military since the outbreak of the virus, and that they fought hard to reduce hostility against health personnel in the district.

LUC Brewah continued that they visited all paramount chiefs in the district and engaged executives of commercial motorbike riders and drivers’ union on the need to stop overloading passengers.

Military Commander of Pujehun District, Lieutenant Colonel Karefa Kamara, said the security success was as a result of community support and proactive moves to quarantine homes of suspected Ebola patients.

“We immediately quarantined whosoever we understood had any contact with an Ebola infected person. People opposed us for that but we believed that we have to offend people whenever we take positive decisions. It was not easy but with the coordination and cooperation of the stakeholders, we succeeded,” said the Lt. Col Kamara.

Other speakers, including District Officer Andrew Fofanah, praised the milestone achieved by the district, which he attributed to effective leadership and coordination.