Health & Medicine

A photographer gets up close with the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone

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Credit: Pete Muller/Prime for the Washington Post

Members of a Red Cross burial team put on personal protective equipment before entering the home of a woman suspected of dying of Ebola in the village of Dia, Siera Leone, on Monday, August 18, 2014.

In Sierra Leone, so many people have died of Ebola that the entire country has changed its social habits, from how they give simple greetings to how they bury their friends and family. The virus is spread through fluids and physical contact.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

"The entire population is upholding a policy of no touching," says photographer Pete Muller, who was recently in the country on assignment for the Washington Post. "So throughout the country, no one is shaking hands. Even in crowds, people are telling each other not to touch one another ... People understand that this virus is very real, and they want to abide by what the officials are telling them.”

Overall, Muller says, “I saw a civilian population that is terrified of Ebola, has really come to terms with the fact that the virus is very real. And [the disease] has had a devastating effect on many communities and being cooperative."

One way the infection is spread is through traditional burial ceremonies, when family and friends wash and mourn over the bodies of victims. The International Red Cross has stepped in and is enforcing safe burials.

Muller estimates that a team of 20 workers, using two or three vehicles, was responsible for the safe burials of every person who died from Ebola in the Kailahun district, the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone. “So I saw a group of people who were absolutely overstretched in terms of trying to stem this very critical part of the epidemic,” he says.

What struck Muller most was “the extent of the epidemic and the challenges in terms of resources for the response teams and humanitarian workers and government workers who are trying to deal with it.” He says one of those groups, Doctors Without Borders, is “truly stretched to its capacity, absolutely.“

As a photographer there, Muller says he had to be vigilant about the risk of exposure to the Ebola virus. He tried to follow all of the health recommendations, including a “six-foot buffer zone between you and anything that’s considered high risk. I tried as best I could to abide by that," he says, "and certainly never came into direct contact with any bodies or infected people.”

Muller says Ebola is not an airborne virus. While it is highly contagious among people who are affected and symptomatic, it is not something people tend to pick up casually. "So while I was extraordinarily vigilant, almost to a neurotic degree, I also tried to balance that in my own mind with some medical information.” 

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    Credit: Pete Muller/Prime for the Washington Post

    A boy wanders through a field of rice near the village of Dia, Sierra Leone on Monday, August 18, 2014. Sierra Leone has been heavily affected by the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, with many of its cases found in rural areas.

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    Credit: Pete Muller/Prime for the Washington Post

    Doctors Without Borders medical staff discuss patient status across an established safety cordon in an Ebola treatment center in Kailahun, Sierra Leone, on Sunday, August 17, 2014. Those in masks stand in the "high risk" zone where highly-contagious Ebola victims receive treatment.

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    Credit: Pete Muller/Prime for the Washington Post

    Members of a Red Cross burial team take samples from a woman suspected of dying of Ebola in the village of Dia on Monday, August 18, 2014. So-called "safe burials," done by the International Federation of the Red Cross, are conducted in accordance with rigorous safety procedures. The dead bodies of Ebola victims are extremely infectious.

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    Credit: Pete Muller/Prime for the Washington Post

    Residents of the village of Sengema, Sierra Leone, gather inside a schoolhouse to watch Red Cross workers prepare the body of a man suspected of dying of Ebola on Saturday, August 18, 2014.

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    Credit: Pete Muller/Prime for the Washington Post

    Residents of the town of Kailahun gather along a river at dusk on Tuesday, August 19, 2014. Kailahun district, in eastern Sierra Leone, has been most heavily affected by the ongoing Ebola outbreak. School in the town has been suspended and residents live in fear.

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    Credit: Pete Muller/Prime for the Washington Post

    People who were denied passage at a checkpoint outside of Kenema wait on the roadside on Friday, August 22, 2014. Only those in possession of a government-issued permit are allowed to cross Ebola quarantine checkpoints.

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    Credit: Pete Muller/Prime for the Washington Post

    Relatives of a man suspected of dying of Ebola look on as Red Cross workers pack his body in the village of Sengema, Sierra Leone on Saturday, August 16, 2014. Family and community members are encouraged not to touch the bodies of those suspected of dying from Ebola, since the bodies are highly contagious. This aspect of the virus has seriously disrupted traditional funeral ceremonies.

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