BACKGROUND: Safely burying Ebola infected individuals is acknowledged to be important for controlling Ebola epidemics and was a major component of the 2013-2016 West Africa Ebola response. Yet, in order to understand the impact of safe burial programs it is necessary to elucidate the role of unsafe burials in sustaining chains of Ebola transmission and how the risk posed by activities surrounding unsafe burials, including care provided at home prior to death, vary with human behavior and geography.
METHODOLOGY/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: Interviews with next of kin and community members were carried out for unsafe burials in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, in six districts where the Red Cross was responsible for safe and dignified burials (SDB). Districts were randomly selected from a district-specific sampling frame comprised of villages and neighborhoods that had experienced cases of Ebola. An average of 2.58 secondary cases were potentially generated per unsafe burial and varied by district (range: 0-20). Contact before and after death was reported for 142 (46%) contacts. Caregivers of a primary case were 2.63 to 5.92 times more likely to become EVD infected compared to those with post-mortem contact only. Using these estimates, the Red Cross SDB program potentially averted between 1,411 and 10,452 secondary EVD cases, reducing the epidemic by 4.9% to 36.5%.
CONCLUSIONS/SIGNIFICANCE: SDB is a fundamental control measure that limits community transmission of Ebola; however, for those individuals having contact before and after death, it was impossible to ascertain the exposure that caused their infection. The number of infections prevented through SDB is significant, yet greater impact would be achieved by early hospitalization of the primary case during acute illness.