Caritas Internationalis seeks ministry's support in response to Ebola epidemic

December 15, 2014


Caritas Internationalis' Msgr. Robert Vitillo provided Catholic Health World with an update about the organization's response to Ebola in West Africa and how CHA members can support that effort.

Caritas Internationalis, based in Vatican City, is a confederation of 164 national Catholic aid organizations around the world, providing humanitarian assistance, health and social services, and advocacy for some of the globe's most needy and marginalized populations. Its two U.S. member organizations are Catholic Relief Services and Catholic Charities USA.

Msgr. Vitillo heads the Caritas Internationalis delegation to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, serving on advisory groups related to U.N. efforts to fight Ebola, HIV, tuberculosis and other diseases. He also serves as attaché for health at the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the U.N. in Geneva and as co-convener of the Global Network for Spirituality and Health. He responded to CHA's questions by email while traveling the week of Nov. 30.

Caritas Internationalis, together with several religious orders and other Catholic Church-related nongovernmental organizations, is focusing much effort in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Is there any sign the Ebola epidemic is being stemmed?

These three countries might be considered the "epicenter" of the present epidemic of the Ebola virus disease. During the past 10 months, the epidemic has spread to urban population centers and has infected some 15,000 people and caused 5,000 deaths. We cannot predict when this epidemic will be eliminated in the area, and there is great fear that the disease will become endemic to these three countries or that it might spread beyond this area.

What is daily life like for the people of West Africa?
I traveled to Liberia in late September and early October. I went to bring a message of solidarity to the church and to the people in Liberia and to assist Caritas Liberia to develop an emergency appeal for funds, which was launched shortly after my return to Europe. I will travel to Sierra Leone in mid-December.

In Liberia, the pain and sorrow of the people was palpable. So many people I met had lost relatives or neighbors and there was great fear that they too would become infected. We could hear the ambulance sirens throughout the day and night as they hauled newly diagnosed patients to the specialized Ebola treatment units. During that period of time, the treatment units did not have sufficient capacity to treat all Ebola virus disease diagnosed patients, so many had to return home where there was great danger that they would infect family members who tried to care for them.

What's been the church's experience in combating the epidemic?
The church has been active on many fronts in Liberia and the other two heavily affected countries: It is making great efforts to keep open its existing health services — both hospitals and clinics. However, a number of the Catholic hospitals had to close because they lost many staff members early during the outbreak, when staff did not have sufficient personal protective equipment to avoid being infected with the body fluids of those already demonstrating symptoms. For example, in Monrovia, (Liberia), the Brothers of St. John of God lost nine of 15 staff, who became infected with the virus, including their director, the nursing coordinator, a social worker and the chaplain. Since then, much work has been done to construct and equip screening units outside these facilities and to set in place strict infection control procedures.

Does Caritas' Ebola response extend beyond the provision of direct medical care?
The Caritas organizations in these countries are concentrating on community-based education and mobilization, food assistance, especially for families who are in 21-day quarantine because they have been in close contact with infected family members or neighbors, and assistance to widows and orphans.

Much effort has been made to educate clergy, religious and other community leaders about the basic facts related to Ebola so that they could transmit factual information to those in their communities and thus decrease the myths, panic and discrimination which are rampant in Ebola-affected communities.

In Liberia, the schools have been closed for almost a year, so the Salesian fathers and brothers have engaged their students and teachers in community education programs. Similar work has been undertaken by the students and faculty of the Mother Patern College of Health Sciences in Monrovia, who also have invited the HIV/AIDS community educators to join them in this work.

Caritas also has assisted Catholic organizations in the neighboring countries to prepare themselves in case the disease begins to spread more widely beyond the three heavily affected countries.

Where and how should CHA members respond if they want to support Caritas Internationalis' efforts?
Caritas Internationalis is trying to assist its own member organizations as well as other Catholic Church-inspired programs, which are working on the provision of outreach vehicles and ambulances, laboratory equipment including polymerase chain reaction machines (which detect viral genetic material) and are vital to early diagnosis, rapid Ebola tests (which deliver quick but accurate results and can be used in rural areas without access to more sophisticated laboratory equipment and supplies), personal protective equipment, medicines to treat other diseases, funds to offer risk incentive "top off" pay to health care workers, emergency goods and supplies, especially rice. Volunteer assistance from foreign medical workers, social workers, counselors and managers is desperately needed, but funds to lodge and feed such volunteers are equally required. Caritas Internationalis could assist with the transfer of funds. We do not have the means to transport supplies, but some other organizations have some capacity in this regard.


Donations can be made through

Please designate the "Emergency Response Fund" and specify that the donation is to support the Ebola response efforts.


Copyright © 2014 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2014 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.