We’re all familiar with the Ebola crisis. But did you know that there is One Thing We Can Do to Control the Spread of Ebola? Would you be surprised to find out, when it comes to the Ebola crisis, Why something as simple as a shoe could change lives in Africa?
And would you be even more surprised to find out that the organization pushing this is having a Barefoot Sunday on October 19th to collect your shoes to send to Africa?
Let’s review how Ebola is spread. You have to come into direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. It can only enter your body through your mucus membranes (for instance, touching your eyes or your mouth) or through a cut in your skin (intact skin protects you). And while it is not “airborne”, it can still be gotten from droplets of ejecta if you breath them in. Here’s what the CDC says about transmission of Ebola.
So, can one get Ebola because of having bare feet? Yes, it is of course possible. If someone with Ebola has recently vomited or bled somewhere and you have a fresh cut on your foot, it could get in that way.
But what are the odds? Are you going to get it from walking around outdoors? Most of those sick from Ebola are being cared for indoors, and most of the people who get it are those who are taking care of the sick and who don’t (or cannot) take sufficient precautions. But are the patients throwing up and bleeding outdoors? Not really.
Of course, if you are taking care of somebody with Ebola, you want shoes . . . and gloves and masks and full-body suits. And you need full decontamination before you leave—you cannot touch your gloves afterwards, either.
The author of the first article, Stephen T. Fomba, checked with a virologist:
I’m not sure how much barefoot walking is contributing to the spread of the virus right now, but a virologist confirmed my hypothesis.
What else is the virologist going to say? Yes, it’s possible.
But I really doubt shoes will, as the title says, “control the spread of Ebola.” If you are concentrating on bare feet in fighting Ebola, you are doomed to failure.
The other author, Palmer Chinchen, is the pastor of “The Grove” in Arizona. He has written (and is pushing) a book called Barefoot Tribe. It’s a call to care for each other.
But he seems to have a real conflict with the idea of barefootedness. On the one hand, he wants to form this “Barefoot Tribe” of Christian helpers. On the other hand, here’s what he says about going barefoot:
Walking barefoot is shameful.
Here is also how he puts it in promoting their Barefoot Sunday:
On Barefoot Sunday we invite every person who takes off their shoes to walk the rest of the day barefoot, in order to experience in a small way how 1/5 of the world’s population lives everyday. If they go shopping or to a restaurant, go barefoot. It’s a bit shaming, and a bit painful, with the hot asphalt and the gravel. But people will empathize with the poor in a new way, and will never forget the Sunday they walked barefoot.
Funny, but when I go barefoot I’m not ashamed and I’m not pained. At all.
Maybe it works better for those who have feet that have been weakened by perennial shoe-wearing.
In this story on OneNewsNow, Palmer says
But where I grew up in Liberia, here’s the thing — when they walk barefoot, they get bilharzia, they get filaria, a parasite, a hookworm, and their stomachs bloat, and their hair turns orange, and their tongues get infected because they walk barefoot.
Let’s look at that. “Bilharzia” is another name for Schistosomiasis. It is caught from fresh water (swimming, drinking, washing) infested with the parasite. It is controlled by breaking its life cycle, which often means killing the snails that are part of that life cycle. There is also a medication, praziquantel, that can be taken. I’d like to add here that Jimmy Carter has done a lot of work in fighting schistosomiasis through The Carter Center.
Can you get bilharzia from being barefoot? Well, yeah. Feet have skin just like the whole rest of your body that can be attacked by the parasites when touched by contaminated water. But to blame it on the lack of shoes is well, either ignorant, or promoting an agenda. Just like Ebola, if you are concentrating on bare feet in fighting bilharzia, you are doomed to failure.
Let’s look at filaria. That’s really filariasis, caused by a kind of roundworm. It’s transmitted by black flies and mosquitoes.
Can you get filariasis through your bare feet? Well, yeah. You can be bitten on your feet, just as you can on any other part of your body. But if you are concentrating on bare feet in fighting filariasis, you are doomed to failure.
We’ve discussed hookworm many times before. It’s sanitation that really matters there. Yes, shoes can make a difference, but a lack of sanitation affects so many other areas (giving diarrhea, for instance) that getting decent outhouses is critical in breaking the life cycle of the hookworms. I should also add that education is also critical—if you don’t get the people to use the latrines, they’re worthless, as this story from yesterday, Widely used sanitation programs do not necessarily improve health points out.
I’m in a bit of a bind here. These two authors have direct experience in Africa, having grown up there. Fomba tells us in his article how awful being barefoot was—he makes it sound like constant pain. Chinchen says similar things. I want to be extremely leery of countering or discounting what they say since that have that direct experience.
But I also don’t know how much they are pushing an agenda. Chinchen, talking about the horrors of bare feet in regards to bilharzia and schistosomiasis was clearly blaming the wrong thing. How much else of what he says can we trust? Are there really all that much broken glass and foot punctures there? (Or has that been exaggerated like people do around here?)
I do think it is clear that going barefooted in these areas can be difficult. There are some advantages to footwear when a lot of infrastructure is totally lacking. But doesn’t that mean that the infrastructure (and culture) needs to be fixed?
But one thing I am sure of. Using Ebola to push a shoe agenda is a major disconnect.
And using Ebola to argue for shoes puts into doubt their other arguments for why shoes are necessary.
[Photo from the Sabin Vaccine Institute on flickr. Caption as supplied with the picture.]