01/04/2015 06:18 EST | Updated 03/06/2015 05:59 EST

Ebola Outbreak: Edmonton Aid Worker To Battle Psychological Toll Of Virus

Overflowing graveyards, crowded makeshift hospital wards, bodies left untouched on busy streets.

Since the deadly Ebola outbreak began in West Africa, the images of physical suffering have spread worldwide.

But with the death toll from the virus topping 8,000 people, an Edmonton volunteer is among those being sent to battle the unseen psychological cost of the outbreak.

“People are suffering,” said Laura Keegan, who left Sunday morning for a month-long deployment in Sierra Leone with the Red Cross.

“There is a lot of stigma and discrimination that is going along with Ebola. Fear and misunderstanding.”

As a “psycho-social delegate,” Keegan will draw on decades of experience helping HIV patients deal with the mental burden that comes with suffering from a potentially fatal disease.

While most of the focus is on the medical dangers of Ebola, Keegan said that “psychological first-aid” is nonetheless vital — not only for the dying, but also for those who have survived the virus.

“It’s more about giving a sense of hope for the future, that they can get through this,” she said.

The mission’s work also involves strengthening the capacity of local health workers to deal with the disease, as well as recruiting volunteers to help educate others about Ebola and how it is spread.

The highly-contagious virus infects through contact with blood and other bodily fluids. Cultural practices, such as washing the bodies of the dead, have helped the virus spread.

“[We are] helping their family members find a way to grieve when they can’t have contact with the deceased.“

'Healthy fear of Ebola'

The dangers of contracting the virus have forced health workers to wear protective equipment when dealing with Ebola patients. Even then, there have been many cases of foreign aid workers contracting the virus while in Africa.

Keegan said she has a “healthy fear of Ebola,” especially following the case of a nurse in B.C. who was suspected, and later cleared, of having the disease after returning from Sierra Leone. A Scottish health care worker was confirmed to have the virus last week.

Keegan said those precautions, while necessary,  make it more difficult to comfort those suffering from Ebola.

“It’s hard to communicate through what looks like a spacesuit and try to get a connection with people,” she said.

“The eyes can be powerful, the voice … it can still connect with people through the equipment.”

Keegan and others in the Red Cross unit will travel first to Ottawa and then Spain for training, before travelling to the Kenema region of Sierra Leone.

After a month, she will return to Canada, where she will have to monitor her health for 21 days at home.

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