A Japanese UNICEF official says that communication, as well as medical treatment, is key in the fight against the Ebola outbreak in Africa and other epidemics.

“Diseases readily curable at town doctors in Japan often cause deaths in Africa,” said Yukiko Sakurai, a specialist in communications for development at the United Nations Children’s Fund, during a recent interview in Tokyo.

“I would like to save as many lives as possible,” she added.

Sakurai, 39, is currently assigned to UNICEF’s office in Sierra Leone, a hard-hit West African country where the pace of infection is slowing but without signs of an end in sight to the Ebola outbreak. Malaria and other diseases also kill a large number of children there.

Sakurai struggles on a day-to-day basis to find out how to help local people recognize the importance of hygiene to prevent disease.

As for the Ebola virus, which spreads via contact with the body fluids, there are no established medicines or vaccines for treatment. So preventing infection is crucial to fighting the deadly disease.

An estimated 70 percent of Ebola transmissions in the African outbreak are linked to the traditional custom of washing dead bodies before burial.

“It’s worthless only to tell them (Africans) to stop the conventional burial custom because anyone naturally has an urge to clean the bodies of family members who died after discharging a huge amount of bodily waste,” Sakurai said.

After a series of discussions involving UNICEF officials and local residents, the UNICEF office in Sierra Leone began sending a burial service team, including a religious leader, in protective clothing to each funeral. The practice has resulted in an increase in people who understand that they do not have to wash the bodies of their family members by themselves.

“I learned a great deal about how development assistance should be,” Sakurai said.

Born in Chiba Prefecture, as a young girl Sakurai began to wonder why “conflicts are unstoppable.”

She studied social anthropology at a graduate school in Britain and joined the Japan International Cooperation Agency, which sent her to Ghana and Tanzania as an AIDS expert.

Sakurai then moved to UNICEF. Altogether, she has been involved in support activities in Africa for more than 10 years.


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