The Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa has claimed the lives of 16 Seventh-day Adventists, a church official announced Saturday.
“The people are suffering,” said James Golay, president of the West Africa Union Mission, speaking from Liberia onto a video screen projected to hundreds of church leaders gathered at the denomination’s headquarters for the 2014 Annual Council.
Golay would have attended the meeting, but stayed home. Global health organizations and church officials are encouraging people to limit travel to and from West Africa over concerns about the rapidly spreading infectious disease that has killed more than 4,000 people.
Ebola was the focus of a special prayer during the council’s Sabbath morning worship led by Elder Ted N. C. Wilson, president of the denomination.
“Today we have a special opportunity on behalf of our dear brothers and sisters in West Africa, to pray that God will intercede and will halt the terrible epidemic of the Ebola crisis, Wilson told more than 400 people in the auditorium. “We ask the world church to pray today and not to stop praying.”
Wilson, who earlier in his pastoral career served nine years in West Africa, said the 33,000 Adventists in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia are facing “unbelievable difficulty.”
He then turned to the video screen where Pastor Golay explained that church members are suffering not only because some have contracted Ebola, but because of the disease’s effects on fellowship: Adventists now avoid customs such as shaking hands and hugging.
In the packed General Conference auditorium, Israel Leito, president of the Church’s in Inter-American Division, asked God to give courage to ministerial workers in West Africa.
“Father, I think of the pastors who can’t abandon their flocks, they cannot retreat from the onslaught of Ebola,” Leito prayed. “They have to continue visiting, they have to continue burying the dead, they have to continue comforting those that are sick.”
Leito concluded: “Help us to remember that we should not wait for a crisis to look for you, but that we should be connected with you at all times.”
The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is the largest and most complex Ebola outbreak since the disease was first discovered in 1976 in Central Africa, when it is believed that animals transmitted the virus to humans. The current outbreak, with an average fatality rate of about 50 percent, is believed to have started in Guinea in late December, and has spread to Sierra Leone, Liberia, and other countries.
The virus is spread among humans by direct contact, such as through broken skin or mucous membranes; blood and secretions; and contact with surfaces contaminated with such fluids.
Despite the rapid spread, Ebola is preventable with regular handwashing and the use of personal protective equipment.
Wilson said the church has responded accordingly to the crisis.
“We have many activities going on to take care of the people in West Africa, through ADRA, through our church, and we want to lift up to God today our people the population in general,” Wilson said, “and the wonderful work that is being done in the name of the Lord.”
In August, Health Ministries Director Dr. Peter Landless urged church employees and members to avoid travel to and from nations affected by the epidemic.
The Adventist Development and Relief Agency reacted to the crisis with tens of thousands of dollars in supplies and equipment.
In partnership with Loma Linda University, Adventist Health International, and GlobalMedic, ADRA is providing Cooper Adventist Hospital in Monrovia City, Liberia and Liberian Ministry of Health with $92,000 in supplies, including: 60,000 vinyl gloves; 38,000 face masks; 3,200 isolation gowns and 600 disposable coveralls.
Cooper Hospital, where three people died, has closed temporarily, for a three-week quarantine period. Another medical facility in West Africa, Waterloo Adventist Hospital, also closed, after several staff members contracted the virus in the community. When Waterloo Hospital reopens it will be a government-run Ebola clinic.
In addition, ADRA in Sierra Leone is providing counseling to victims; training for staff and volunteers; and a public education campaign that includes Ebola prevention information on fliers, posters and television programming.