Study finds West African burial rituals to be ‘super-spreaders’ of Ebola, risk full-blown pandemic

Study finds West African burial rituals to be ‘super-spreaders’ of Ebola, risk full-blown pandemic
A man walks in the Tweh farm cemetery on in Monrovia (Source: AFP/Pascal Guyot)

A health warning quietly added this week to the CDC website advising that the Ebola virus could be spread by “droplets” of moisture was just as clandestinely removed after it touched off a firestorm in what has become a politically charged debate over how the deadly virus is and isn’t transmitted.

The health agency’s official position on whether Ebola can be spread by coughing or sneezing is still anything but reassuring, according to a Q&A on its website:

There is no evidence indicating that Ebola virus is spread by coughing or sneezing. Ebola virus is transmitted through direct contact with the blood or body fluids of a person who is sick with Ebola; the virus is not transmitted through the air (like measles virus). However, droplets (e.g., splashes or sprays) of respiratory or other secretions from a person who is sick with Ebola could be infectious, and therefore certain precautions (called standard, contact, and droplet precautions) are recommended for use in healthcare settings to prevent the transmission of Ebola virus from patients sick with Ebola to healthcare personnel and other patients or family members. [Emphasis added]

As the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto grimly quips: “So if you have Ebola we’d like to ask politely that you refrain from sneezing on us.”

Now a new report in the journal “Science” reveals another deadly practice that could lead to a full-blown pandemic in “West Africa and beyond.” Researchers have determined that traditional funeral rites, which include kissing and touching the body of a loved one who has died of the infection, are “super spreaders” of the virus. Unless international advisers are able to persuade indigenous peoples from desisting from these practice, Liberia alone can expect 224 new cases per day by the beginning of December and 348 infections per day by the end of month.

The authors, Abhishek Pandey et. al. write:

To stem Ebola transmission in Liberia, it is imperative to simultaneously restrict traditional burials which are effectively serving as superspreader events.

The news service Agence France Presse explains:

The findings were based on mathematical modeling done by scientists at Yale University, Oregon State University and the Ministry of Health in Liberia, the country hardest hit by the current Ebola epidemic.

“It is imperative that funeral transmission be stopped,” said Jan Medlock, an assistant professor in the OSU Department of Biomedical Sciences and an expert in mathematical epidemiology and the evolution of infectious disease.

[…]

A better way to safely bury the dead would be to disinfect “the cadaver before placing it in a plastic body bag and doing further disinfecting,” said the study.

The Obama administration, which is largely responsible for having made the Ebola crisis into a political football, has never come out directly and stated a concern for “hurting the feelings” of the people of West Africa by interfering with their customs and traditions. Yet, the president’s remarks have certainly suggested his inclination is not to meddle in their affairs. The White House’s reaction to this study should resolve that question once and for all.

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Howard Portnoy

Howard Portnoy

Howard Portnoy has written for The Blaze, HotAir, NewsBusters, Weasel Zippers, Conservative Firing Line, RedCounty, and New York’s Daily News. He has one published novel, Hot Rain, (G. P. Putnam’s Sons), and has been a guest on Radio Vice Online with Jim Vicevich, The Alana Burke Show, Smart Life with Dr. Gina, and The George Espenlaub Show.


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