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Guinea: Global Handwashing Day, we ask why aren’t people here washing their hands?

Esther*, 9, in Sierra Leone has been taught to wash her hands to protect herself and her community from Ebola; in Guinea that’s happening less (Dan Stewart/ Save the Children)

By Kate Aykroyd, Information and Communication Officer, Emergency Response Team, Guinea

A little over a week ago I arrived in Guinea to help assess Save the Children’s response to Ebola and establish how we could do more.

I was excited but nervous as I disembarked the plane, eyeing passengers cautiously for signs of sickness or fever.

I had resolved to touch nothing and nobody. I didn’t realise then how tough that would be.

In Conakry

After all the media pictures of fully covered and masked personnel, arriving into Guinea’s capital, Conakry, is underwhelming.

Apart from the empty flight (a clear giveaway that something is up with your destination) and a few posters on arrival, it would appear that here in Guinea it is business as usual.

Yet Conakry was the first major city to see cases of Ebola. I can’t get over the absence of any sense of emergency. It feels as though Ebola were “somewhere else” – not here at all.

Ebola is here – so why aren’t people taking precautions?

My first reminder that nothing is normal here was meeting a response team member for the first time: unable to shake hands, we stopped, laughed and offered a gesture of an elbow high-five. The second, and most pertinent, reminder is the handwashing.

The buckets of chlorine water stationed at the hotel, some offices, shops and restaurants are the real indication that Ebola is in town: bleach kills the disease, neutralising the tiny drops of infected spit, blood, urine or other secretions that are spreading this horrible illness so effectively.

Yet the buckets remain largely unmonitored and it seems that using of them is optional.

An unprecedented emergency

Since March, over 8,000 people have contracted the virus, killing over 4,000 people and making it by far the largest Ebola outbreak the world has seen. In West Africa, Ebola is tearing its way through a region that already suffers from some of the lowest levels of healthcare in the world.

In Guinea, new cases are reported every day, and the death toll rises. Systems are stretched, if not at capacity, and there are other pressing challenges, such as convincing some stubbornly disbelieving rural communities that Ebola exists. People still put out a hand to shake, sometimes eyeing you askance when you don’t take it.

I hear from colleagues in the other countries where Save the Children is responding that the air is filled with the smell of chlorine, handwashing is compulsory wherever you go and your temperature is taken repeatedly throughout the day.

From what I have seen so far in Guinea, this is not the case here.

Hope is premature

This country has suffered several sharp spikes in the number of Ebola cases – and this has happened after people had begun to hope that the virus is under control. here I am far from hopeful – in fact, I am fearful.

There is so much that needs to be done. If we are to curb the rising numbers affected we need to make sure that every health structure, school and local facility has a bucket of water, chlorine and soap.

Everyone needs to abide by Ebola prevention etiquette: washing your hands should not be optional; an awkward hello should be the norm.

 *Name changed to protect identity

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