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Pray Over Hot Salt Water, Then Bathe In It: An Anti-Ebola Ritual

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has spent the past week covering the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone. She's seen a mix of emotions: fear, panic, denial — and this past weekend, a fervent belief in a rather unusual ritual.

So people prayed over hot salt water, then bathed in it as a way to prevent Ebola. That is bizarre.

I didn't use the word bizarre. You did. Maybe unusual?

When did this salt water ritual surface?

It was on Saturday, very early in the morning. There was this buzz. Everybody was talking. Mothers were calling their grown children up at 1, 2, 3 o'clock in the morning to pray over salt water and then bathe in it. Some were told to drink a little. People were being woken out of a deep sleep to perform this ritual literally in the middle of the night.

We were told there were instances of town criers going up and down the streets instructing people to bathe with hot salt water. And it was Christians and Muslims. It may be an indicator of how much Ebola is taking hold of people's consciousness.

How many people participated?

It just swept everybody away. It was certainly widespread and not just in the capital. The calls and texts and Whatsapp messages were spinning around the country. My totally unscientific survey tells me that three people in Freetown did not bathe in hot salt water. Ofeibeia Quist-Arcton, a friend, and a young student, who said to me that he believes in Allah and not such rituals. We were told that imams and pastors were instructing people to do this. I don't know how much truth there is in that.

And the prescription was...

Take hot water, add the salt, say prayers over it and then bathe with it in a bathtub or sluice your body from a pail. And it was babies being bathed with it, elderly people, everybody. It was not a case of educated and not educated. It was everyone. I asked, "Is it the prayer part that is important? You were told to do it but to what end?" And people said, "We need to pray, this was an instruction." And it has apparently spread to Nigeria as well.

Any ideas about how this salt remedy came about?

One cynical friend said to me, "I bet you it was the salt sellers." Apparently the price of salt shot up. Another said with all this hot water salt bathing there'll be no salt for cooking the rest of the weekend.

You said that some people drank the water as well.

Yup. Some people said they were told to drink a little and then bathe. But not everybody did that.

And there are unconfirmed reports of people dying from drinking an excessive amount of salt water.

I'm not a doctor, but I think you'd have to drink buckets-full for that to happen.

What do you make of this salt water episode?

It's a mirror into Sierra Leone's psyche at the moment — that so many people obeyed this directive that didn't come from the health ministry or aid agencies. There are plenty of awareness posters around about what you should and should not do [to prevent Ebola]. Hot salt water baths are not featured on them.

After a week covering Ebola, you must be ready for a break.

It stays with you. It's such a massive story. And West Africa is my home region. Once you leave [the area affected] you can't just drop it. The story will follow me around.

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Marc Silver
Marc Silver, who edits NPR's global health blog, has been a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Jewish Times, U.S. News & World Report and National Geographic. He is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond and co-author, with his daughter, Maya Silver, of My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice From Real-Life Teens. The NPR story he co-wrote with Rebecca Davis and Viola Kosome -- 'No Sex For Fish' — won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists.