U.S. Church News

Nuns, Catholic groups work to blunt the scourge of human trafficking

By Mark Pattison Catholic News Service

CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn

A mosaic of St. Josephine Bakhita, often seen as an intercessor for human trafficking victims, is seen in the Trinity Dome at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn) See IN-DEPTH-HUMAN-TRAFFICKING Feb. 14, 2020.

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Catholic organizations, from women's religious orders to corporate watchdog groups, are working on many fronts to stem the scourge -- and the crime -- of human trafficking.

The two most common aspects of human trafficking are sex trafficking and forced labor, although some are victimized by both. But two people interviewed by Catholic News Service also warned of the growing prevalence of organ trafficking on the black market; the practice was depicted in the 2002 movie "Dirty Pretty Things."

Women religious have been on the front lines of fighting human trafficking, and over the past decade, united their efforts under the name U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking. It is part of a worldwide organization called Talitha Kum, named after Jesus' instruction to Jairus' daughter, whom her family believed to be dead: "Little girl, get up."

According to Jennifer Reyes, executive director of U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking, the U.S. group is one of 52 similar national networks belonging to Talitha Kum -- evidence of both the massive scope of human trafficking and of the effort to prevent it and to help those caught up in it.

Reyes said forced child marriages are another form of human trafficking. "It can really intersect with sexual exploitation and forced labor," she noted, adding that the phenomenon of child soldiers is yet another dimension of human trafficking.

Felician Sister Maryann Mueller, head of the organization's education working group, said people will tell her at workshops, "Well, that doesn't happen here." "Well, it does happen here," is her reply.

"A lot more people know more about human trafficking than they did 10 years ago," Sister Mueller said. "I hope people will be aware of human trafficking -- and, specifically, how we are complicit as consumers as people are aware of the dangers of smoking or not using your seatbelts."

How are consumers complicit? "Anything that we consume," Sister Mueller said. "Products that we buy, when we go to a restaurant and consume a meal. Even the supply chain."

Sister Ann Scholz, a School Sister of Notre Dame, who chairs U.S. Catholic Sisters' advocacy working group, took part in Talitha Kum's first international gathering last fall. There, she said, they identified three "root causes" of human trafficking where the organization can put its focus.

"One is forced migration, which makes people vulnerable to human trafficking -- unjust immigration law and policy," said Sister Scholz, who also is associate director of social mission for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

Second is "the power differential between men and women in all sectors, which would mean economic, social, familial, political, cultural and religious. And the third we identified was the dominant model of neoliberal development and unfettered capitalism," Sister Scholz said "That creates situations of vulnerability that are exploited by traffickers and employers and buyers."

While the motherhouse of Sister Jean Schafer, a Sister of the Divine Savior, is in Wisconsin, she and another member of her order have been in California for the past 17 years ministering to trafficking survivors, including 10 years helping operate a safe house in San Diego. They now live near Sacramento, California, at a parish administered by the Salvatorians, the men's religious counterpart to their order.

Still, she gives workshops, connects frequently via videoconference with other U.S. sisters who also provide direct services to survivors, and drives to survivors' homes to teach English.

During one recent presentation, on how grandparents can protect their grandchildren from social media's ills, "we had one woman at the presentation who attends the youth program at the parish. She said, 'Actually, I saw something not good with my daughter,'" who was 16 and had a 19-year-old boyfriend who "popped into her life."

The mother continued: "I didn't want my daughter to know I was snooping on her. But ultimately, through open conversation and me not being too heavy as a parent, my daughter opened up and said, 'I think he's luring me into something. I think he's grooming me.'"

"This is going on in our school systems," Sister Schafer said. "We really have to be aware of the undercurrent of what's happening in social media."

She also recounted the story of a young woman in San Diego who, after being forced into prostitution, sought refuge at their safe house.

"They ran away from the abuser that they were hooked up with, but I think they were not fully convinced that this was not a good way to earn money," Sister Schafer recalled. "The guy kept the money and was abusive, so they ran away from that person," but the lure of "quick money" from prostitution and the hope that "maybe the next guy, he will be great" is hard to dispel.

"We did have women who ran away from us," and this woman was one of them, she added. "We had the feeling they went back on the streets. But we don't know. A safe house is not a prison."

But another woman who came, only to leave, Sister Schafer said, "went back on the streets for four years, and then had some kind of a conversion experience," and came back to the house, control of which by this time the sisters had given to an evangelical group seeking such a house for its ministry. That woman now works on the staff of that safe house.

Domestically, U.S. Catholic Sisters is one of about three dozen Catholic organizations, religious orders, schools and dioceses belonging to the Coalition of Catholic Organizations Against Human Trafficking.

The coalition was developed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops about 20 years ago, as awareness of human trafficking as "a distinct crime" began maturing, said Hilary Chester, associate director for anti-trafficking programs of the USCCB's Migration and Refugee Services.

"In the early years, there were several Catholic organizations that were among the first organizations to receive federal funding to provide services to survivors, to form coalitions and task forces on the ground and in the U.S. USCCB was also one of the first organizations to get some of the funding to build capacity, to build collations, to train paraprofessionals and law enforcement," Chester said.

On a parallel track, since the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000, the focus also has been on "keeping the momentum to have more protective laws," she added. "We focus a lot more on both advocacy both at the local level but also at the national level."

Action also is pressed at the corporate level with the help of religious organizations that press executives to stop human trafficking where it occurs in its supply chain.

There are numerous stories how the garment industry has more trafficked employees than any other industry in the world," said Christopher Cox, an associate director at the Seventh Generation Interfaith Coalition for Responsible Investment, which, despite its name, is a predominantly Catholic consortium.

"Because of the extended supply chain, there are lot of ways that a company might act to protect their reputation but not to protect God's most vulnerable human beings in their supply chain," Cox added.

"But even when we think about it here in the United States, agricultural workers are some of the most vulnerable workers on the planet," he told CNS. "There are loopholes of how we treat ag labor in U.S. labor law, that leads to more exploitation."

"There's been a great deal of success from shareholder engagements with companies in the transportation and hospitality sectors on trafficking awareness and prevention," said a Feb. 14 email to CNS from Caroline Boden, shareholder advocacy manager for St. Louis-based Mercy Investment Services.

"Over the past several years," she said, "Mercy Investments has filed resolutions with nine companies in the trucking and transportation sector on human trafficking prevention, all of which were withdrawn and resulted in substantive dialogue."

"We were able to withdraw a proposal with Marten Transport when the company agreed to engage with shareholders and adopt a policy to address the issue of trafficking. The company has publicly disclosed a policy on combating human trafficking and has implemented an internal training program for all its drivers," Boden added.

"We have been engaging social media, device makers and telecom companies and are expanding to others," said a Feb. 13 email to CNS from Tracey C. Rembert, director of Catholic responsible investments for Christian Brothers Investment Services.

Christian Brothers, Mercy Investments and Seventh Generation are all members of the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility, which prods publicly traded companies to behave more ethically.

"We have seen changes to policies and practices and a reorganization of staffing at several firms to have a dedicated online safety team," Rembert said. "We have seen Apple begin scanning the iCloud for child sex abuse material. AT&T (is) rolling out nationwide assistance for parents on parental control setup and including non-ATT customers.

"Verizon has published a new policy on what they do to protect children and has joined a number of child protection groups to better understand new tech tools to ID and block child abuse material online. Facebook and others just launched a new tool to detect child grooming," he noted.

"Lots (is) happening, but the risk is escalating as well," added Rembert, noting that "over 60 million images and videos" were reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children hotline "in 2019."


Update: Change to public charge rule seen to have chilling effect on immigrants

By Beth Griffin Catholic News Service

CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

Ella Nimmo, director of community programs and development at Cabrini Immigrant Services of New York City, speaks about the Trump administration's expanded "public charge" policy and its potential impact on immigrants during a presentation at the agency's headquarters Feb. 13, 2020. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz) See PUBLIC-CHARGE-IMMIGRANTS Feb. 14, 2020.

NEW YORK (CNS) -- Widespread confusion about a recent change to the so-called "public charge" law that limits immigrants' use of government benefit programs will have a chilling effect on people, including those who are not covered by the ruling, according to staff at Cabrini Immigrant Services of NYC.

"It's a bad rule, like a bad immigrant version of the old telephone game," Oscar Montes said. "Information filters down and people are getting scared about things that don't affect them."

Montes is immigration staff attorney for Cabrini Immigrant Services. He led a Feb. 13 workshop about the change at the organization's basement headquarters in a building behind St. Teresa's Church on New York's Lower East Side.

The public charge test has been a feature of U.S. immigration law since 1882, when it was first used to deny admission to the country to people who might depend on the government as their main source of support. It also is applied to noncitizens who seek lawful permanent residence, familiarly known as green card status.

The new regulation promulgated by the Department of Homeland Security redefines public charge more broadly than in the past. Starting Feb. 24, it will assess whether a noncitizen receives or is likely to receive one or more certain public benefits for more than 12 months in a 36-month period. Receipt of two benefits in one month, such as food stamps and government-subsidized housing, counts as two months.

Montes said people are confused about who is covered by the new change. He said it does not apply to green card holders, refugees, asylum-seekers, victims of trafficking or domestic violence, and most children. In effect, it applies primarily to people who are applying for green cards or certain nonimmigrant visas.

"Most public benefit programs are not included in the new rule, but the changes are both too scary and not scary enough," Montes said. "They are scary because some people will panic and disenroll from programs to which they are rightfully entitled.

"They are not scary enough," he continued, "because people do not yet realize how accessing services legitimately can be used to discriminate against them in the future by an adjudicator examining their visa case."

Montes said the determination of whether someone will be a public charge will be based on a review of the "totality of circumstances" including age, education, income, employment history, health and certain past public benefits, which will now include cash assistance programs, federally funded non-emergency care paid by Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, and Section 8 housing assistance."

The ruling is not retroactive. Benefits other than cash assistance and long-term medical care at government expense used before Feb. 24 will not be considered in the public charge determination.

Implementation of the public charge law in the past did not have an effect on most people because the majority of immigrants who applied for permanent residency did not access the programs that could have disqualified them, according to Ella Nimmo. She is the director of community programs and development for Cabrini Immigrant Services.

"The rule change expands the benefits that are included in the calculation and gives more weight to things that most people cannot change, like age, family size, disability and income. The implementation targets low-income people of color," she said.

Montes and Nimmo said confusion about the effect of the rule changes is compounded by questions about how they apply to homes that include people of mixed immigration status and those who access benefits that are not subject to the changes, including supplemental nutrition, school lunches and health clinics.

Montes told the workshop participants that benefits received by citizen children or other family members a of a noncitizen do not count toward the determination of public charge, but may contribute to painting a larger picture in a future discussion of "totality of circumstances."

"You have to determine if the new rules apply to you and weigh your own circumstances. Don't disenroll your children from programs that are there for them," he said. Any consideration of dropping a benefit should include when or if a person will apply for permanent residency, he said.

Montes said the rule changes are "worrying because they impact who can access what we think of as the American Dream. They will have the effect of leaving out people who will contribute."

He said his parents emigrated from Honduras and used very few public benefits as they got settled. "My parents' experience is why I am an immigration attorney," Montes said. "Like most immigrants, they were driven to achieve. The idea that people who use public benefits won't be self-sufficient is discriminatory. It's a joke and not based on fact."

Hector Arguinzones, co-founder of Venezuelans and Immigrants Aid, participated in the workshop. He said his group works closely with Cabrini and its clients are concerned about the new rule and wonder how it will affect their visa applications or if they will be punished. "The rules have become more complicated since 2018 and I am hoping to share info from the workshop to clarify doubts and help people to sleep more tranquilly," he said.

Cabrini Immigrant Services provides essential services to immigrants in the spirit of St. Francis Xavier Cabrini, patron of immigrants and founder of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The 20-year-old organization is a sponsored ministry of the religious congregation.

Catholics 'unfriend' social media, choose 'digital detox' for Lent

By Tim Swift Catholic News Service

CNS photo/Kevin J. Parks, Catholic Review

Sheila Wheltle, a parishioner at St. Mark Church in Catonsville, Md., is pictured at her home Jan. 23, 2020. Wheltle has given up social media for Lent the past nine years. (CNS photo/Kevin J. Parks, Catholic Review) See LENT-UNFRIEND-SOCIAL-MEDIA Feb. 18, 2020.

BALTIMORE (CNS) -- No selfies. No cat videos. Not even an artfully composed photo of avocado toast.

Come Ash Wednesday, Feb. 26, Sheila Wheltle's social media accounts will go dark for 40 days. Her last post will read: "Gone for Lent ... See you at Easter."

More Americans are embracing the concept of a "digital detox" as social media becomes more ubiquitous and at times more harmful, however, others are disconnecting with a distinctly Catholic twist.

Wheltle, a parishioner of St. Mark Church in Catonsville, Maryland, uses Facebook to connect with old friends. She grew up in Philadelphia and later moved to California. She loves how Facebook keeps her in touch with those far-flung friends, but she's also set it aside for the past nine years during Lent.

"As an extrovert, it really is a lot of fun," Wheltle told the Catholic Review, the media outlet of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. But she said, "Facebook is also a major distraction and time waster."

The tradition of giving up small pleasures, like sweets or coffee, for Lent goes back to the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert fasting and praying. While Catholics are encouraged to pick something that's actually a sacrifice, that doesn't mean the sacrifice isn't beneficial.

Father Mark Bialek, pastor of St. John Parish in Westminster, Maryland, said as Lent approaches he is hearing from more of his parishioners this year about the need to unplug.

"It does seem to be a priority this year," Father Bialek said. "You want to pick something that's going to bring you closer to God, something that helps lessen all the distraction and noise. And certainly social media is a lot of distractions and noise."

Greg Hoplamazian, a professor of emerging media at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, said it is it not surprising to see people consider digital detoxes amid recent headlines about the negative effects of social media. Hoplamazian said platforms such as Facebook and Instagram want users engaging with their services constantly, but that's not always a positive thing.

"Social media platforms are really designed to hold our attention. That's been the main focus, keep people on the platform longer," Hoplamazian said. "But we might not get a lot of benefit. We lose free time. We lose the space for our minds to really just think and wander and be creative."

Hoplamazian said studies have shown that notifications from social media can actually trigger a rise in the feel-good chemical dopamine in the brain, giving people further incentive to stay online.

Even though Wheltle admitted she'll be missing some things over Lent -- such as wishing some friends a happy birthday -- she said the time off is worth it. "I'm sure others pick up the slack," she said of those Lent birthdays.

Wheltle is a member of the Walking With Purpose group at St. Mark, which is now focusing on finding a sense of balance in everyday life.

"The saved time can be spent completing undone tasks around the house, perhaps cooking more but also, as it is Lent, working on my prayer life and reading scripture more," Wheltle said.

Father Bialek said even though social media provides more connections, too much of it can hurt you're most meaningful ones such as your relationships with family and God.

Another downside to social media, Hoplamazian said, is how people compare themselves to other social media users.

"Essentially what makes it to a social media feed is like the highlights of other people's lives," Hoplamazian told the Catholic Review. "So all we see are people's vacations and really beautiful pictures and awesome things and accomplishments. So what we see looks like everyone else is doing awesome all the time."

Hoplamazian said a break from social media can not only benefit people during the time away, but when they return.

"There's this fear of missing out that keeps people engaged but when they step away and they realize, 'Oh I didn't really miss out on anything important,'" he said. "I think it gives people a healthier ability to realize, 'Wow. You know I would think about this way too much, and I try to check it too much and maybe I should just check them once a day or twice a day.'"

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Swift is the social media coordinator for the Catholic Review and the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Bishop: 'Brutal ferocity of political winds' can impact pro-life measures

By Brian T. Olszewski Catholic News Service

CNS photo/Michael Mickle, The Catholic Virginian

Bishops Barry C. Knestout of Richmond, Va., and Michael F. Burbidge of Arlington, Va., take part in the second annual Virginia March for Life in Richmond Feb. 13, 2020. A crowd of 1,500 pro-life advocates attended Mass the bishops concelebrated before the rally and march, which was sponsored by the Virginia Society for Human Life, the Family Foundation, the national March for Life organization and the Virginia Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of Virginia's Catholic bishops. (CNS photo/Michael Mickle, The Catholic Virginian) See MARCH-LIFE-RICHMOND Feb. 14, 2020.

RICHMOND, Va. (CNS) -- As rain fell and winds blew outside the Richmond Convention Center, inside Bishop Barry C. Knestout of Richmond told more than 1,500 worshippers at the Mass for Life Feb. 13 that "political winds can change rapidly" and the threat to life can "reemerge with brutal ferocity."

The Mass, concelebrated by Bishop Knestout and Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia, preceded the second annual Virginia March for Life.

The bishop was referring to the legislation being considered in the House of Delegates and Senate, both with Democratic majorities, that would eliminate all processes and procedures, including an ultrasound, which are required under existing law for a pregnant woman's informed written consent to having an abortion. Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has promised to sign such legislation if it reaches his desk.

"Just a few years ago, it was not thought that there would ever be a need for such a march here in the commonwealth," Bishop Knestout said. "The laws and the political culture ensured life was protected in a greater way than maybe in other states although always in danger of being undermined."

The bishop said the Knights of Columbus' commitment to providing ultrasound machines to clinics and the ongoing prayer witness of 40 Days for Life provide hope to those working on behalf of the unborn.

"These good works in turn inspire so many others to action," he said.

Referencing the Gospel proclaimed at the Mass -- Lk 1:39-45 -- Bishop Knestout said Mary's visit to Elizabeth should be the model for helping a woman with an unexpected pregnancy.

"We are called to go without delay, to go 'in haste' as the Blessed Mother did, to offer expectant mothers the support, encouragement and love that they need," he said. "Mary's example of visiting her cousin Elizabeth at the time of both of their unexpected pregnancies should inspire us to serve mothers and families -- even amidst our own conflicting needs."

Delores Oliver, a member of St. Paul Parish in Portsmouth, Virginia, echoed the need to care for unwed mothers.

"There are too many stigmas. If a young girl gets pregnant, she's ostracized. We have to dismiss that," she said. "People will make an error, not a mistake, because a baby made is not a mistake, not ever. We need to change the ideas about how we feel about an unwed mother conceiving. That child would not have been conceived unless it was through the power of the Holy Spirit. God does not make any mistakes."

Audrey Lambert, 11, knew exactly why she was at the Virginia March for Life in Richmond. She even had hoped to tell some of the television stations covering the pro-life rally about it. Lambert, a student at Angelus Academy in Springfield, Virginia, was marching for her brother.

"If my mother hadn't have been pro-life, what would've happened to my brother? James always smiles, he's always happy, he's sort of our little sunshine," said Lambert, lighting up as she talked about her sibling.

"He has Down syndrome and he's deaf, so some people would say he wouldn't have a chance at life and I don't think that's fair. I'm here because all babies deserve a chance at life, just like my brother," she told the Arlington Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Arlington Diocese.

After Mass, many met with their elected officials to advocate for the unborn, especially regarding two pieces of legislation, including S.B. 733, the measure that would roll back the existing requirements for informed consent, and H.B. 980, which would "repeal health and safety protections at abortion facilities (and) allow non-physicians to perform first-trimester abortions," according to the Virginia Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state's Catholic bishops.

Bonita Boyer and Joseph Clement, seniors at St. John Paul the Great Catholic High School in Potomac Shores, Virginia, along with their teacher Andrew Kubick, navigated the government building hallways searching for their representatives while rehearsing their talking points.

They were able to speak with Sen. Scott Surovell, a Democrat from Fairfax, Virginia, and a representative from the office of Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, a Democrat from Prince William, Virginia.

Boyer expressed her concern that non-physicians do not have the proper training to provide abortions, particularly if a medical emergency were to occur. Clement was concerned that the proposed legislation would harm women.

"We're very pro-women's rights and that's what concerns us so much about this bill," he said. "Every person going through a medical procedure has a right to be fully informed. And a lot of these (bills) would reduce a woman's informed consent."

Following a morning of prayer and lobbying, the students climbed up the hill leading to the white steps of the Capitol. People carrying pro-life signs and umbrellas crowded in to the hear the speakers at the rally. Bishop Burbidge gave the opening prayer.

"Oh God, be with us as we march today, remembering it is you who lead us," he said. "Help our elected officials to see your light and exhibit the political will to do what is right and just and holy."

Jeff Caruso, executive director of the Virginia Catholic Conference, told the more than 2,500 rally participants: "Life will prevail because the Lord and creator of life assures us of that. He sends us forth to spread the truth, goodness and beauty of life. We are privileged to have this mission and responsibility."

The march was sponsored by the Virginia Society for Human Life, the Family Foundation, the national March for Life organization and the Virginia Catholic Conference.

In an interview with The Catholic Virginian, newspaper of the Richmond Diocese, Caruso spoke about the protections for the unborn that "have been put in place over the last several decades and in a manner of weeks have been dismantled" by the state Legislature.

"As these protections are being dismantled, we're going to be working very hard to build that back up," he said. "It might take some time but that's what we're committed to doing. Virginians are not going to stop believing in life, proclaiming life and fighting to protect life."

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Olszewski is the editor of The Catholic Virginian, newspaper of the Diocese of Richmond. Contributing to this story was Zoey Maraist, a staff writer at the Arlington Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington.

Update: CRS health official keeps close eye on coronavirus

By Carol Zimmermann Catholic News Service

CNS photo/Aly Song, Reuters

A woman wearing a mask is seen at a subway station in Shanghai Feb. 13, 2020, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the coronavirus. Around the world, people are paying close attention to the coronavirus, which has infected more than 64,000 people and killed at least 1,383 as of Feb. 14. (CNS photo/Aly Song, Reuters) See CORONAVIRUS-EBOLA-CRS Feb. 14, 2020.

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The coronavirus has the world's attention.

The disease, which surfaced in China last year, has infected more than 64,000 people and killed at least 1,383 by mid-February. It has spread to 24 countries and been labeled a global health emergency by the World Health Organization.

Suzanne Van Hulle, the global public health expert for Catholic Relief Services, is paying particularly close attention to the spread of the virus, also called COVID-19, to ensure CRS staff members in Asia are safe.

She said she and other CRS officials are monitoring the situation on a daily basis to see where new cases are showing up and would be willing to adjust programming so that staff members are not in contact with the deadly virus.

"We are tracking the outbreak closely," she told Catholic News Service Feb. 14 from her Washington office.

CRS, the U.S. bishops' overseas relief and development agency, has programs across Asia but no staff members in China. They have a regional office in Cambodia.

For now, the agency is encouraging employees to be vigilant about hand-washing and to monitor their own symptoms, particularly if they have been near anyone exhibiting signs of the virus.

CRS also has urged its employees in Asia to wear protective masks or clothing if they wish and also not to go to that region if they don't want to. "We encourage our staff to feel safe," she said.

In a joint statement issued Feb. 18, three U.S. Catholic leaders expressed solidarity and prayers "for those impacted or working to treat those infected by the disease." Signing the statement were Bishop David J. Malloy of Rockford, Illinois, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on International Justice and Peace; Sean Callahan, CRS president; and Mercy Sister Mary Haddad, president of the Catholic Health Association of the United States.

"We offer our prayers for healing and support those organizations, both domestic and international, working to provide medical supplies and assistance to address this serious risk to public health," the leaders said.

They commended the U.S. government for transporting more than 17 tons of donated medical supplies to China, saying it demonstrated "the critical importance of the need to work together and to invest in crucial health care systems here and in other countries." The group also urged Congress to protect access to domestic health care safety-net programs and provide additional emergency international assistance to areas impacted by the virus.

CRS' Van Hulle knows from experience the potential effects of a deadly virus. She was working in Sierra Leone with CRS' health team in 2014-2015 in response to the Ebola outbreak.

At the time, CRS assisted people in the affected region not only through information campaigns but by providing safe and dignified burials, emergency food distributions, and infectious disease prevention and control. The outbreak had more than 28,000 confirmed cases and more than 11,000 deaths.

"During an Ebola outbreak, information and understanding people's perception about the virus is just as important as medicine or a vaccine," Van Hulle said in a statement at the time. She also said that local community leaders "play a critical role in educating people around Ebola and how to prevent both acquiring the virus and ongoing transmission."

Some of what she learned during that outbreak can be applied to the current situation, she said, particularly the importance of community engagement.

In West Africa, she said, CRS worked with both government and religious leaders to ensure that people received information about how Ebola could be transmitted and stressed the absolute necessity of good hand-washing to keep the disease from spreading.

CRS also encouraged community reporting by urging people to report personal or observed signs or symptoms of the disease though a hotline number.

All the health centers, she added, had triage units at the front to weed out those who might have been exposed to Ebola, or could have it, from those who didn't so fewer people would be exposed to, and in close contact with, those with the disease.

Van Hulle, said that although Ebola is no longer active in West Africa, that is "not to say there couldn't be another outbreak." She also noted that CRS has seen a different strain of the Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The World Health Organization reported Feb. 11 that there have been 3,432 cases of the virus and 2,249 deaths since the first outbreak of it in 2018.

Last year when there was a report of this Ebola strain in Uganda, the CRS Uganda representative, Niek de Goeij, said: "Everyone has been preparing for this scenario."

"We consider even one case a very serious development," he said in a statement. "But while Ebola is a frightening disease, we've seen almost a year of critical preparedness efforts on the part of the Ugandan government, and now immediate action by the Ministry of Health and international partners, to quickly contain these cases so far while avoiding its spread."

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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim

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