Ebola ‘hysteria’ blamed as Stockport school turns away African boy, 9, ‘like a leper’

An aid worker based in Africa accused parents at a Stockport Catholic primary school of treating her nine-year-old son ‘like a leper’ today after he was banned from joining classes over unfounded fears he had Ebola.

Little Kofi Mason-Sesay from Sierra Leone was due to enrol as a pupil at St Simon’s Catholic Primary School in Hazel Grove, near Stockport as part of an annual placement programme.

But when parents at the 168-pupil school found out about the visit through a newsletter they protested to the headmistress Elizabeth Inman and urged her to cancel the arrangement.

Fears Kofi and her English teacher mother Miriam, 48, might have contracted the virus while living in the West African country and may pass it onto other pupils sparked the move.

Mrs Mason-Sesay got herself and her son tested by officials at the Health Protection Agency in London and proved she was of ‘minimal risk’ to others while Mrs Inman took advice from Public Health England who sent out another newsletter insisted there was no risk.

But despite the assurances the school reluctantly bowed to parental pressure and said Kofi could not enrol in classes – blaming ‘misplaced anxiety and misinformation about Ebola’.

In a letter to parents, Mrs Inman said: “It was with a very heavy heart that the Chair of Governors, and I took the pragmatic decision to cancel Miriam and Kofi’s visit to St Simon’s this month. Since the Ebola outbreak I have given constant thought to Miriam’s visit.

“Miriam and her son have been screened, given a one rating, which gives them unrestricted movement in this country. Our Government would not allow this if they thought there was any significant risk.

“I understand that there is a lot of misinformation about how Ebola is spread. A significant number of parents have been in touch with me to express their fears. As you know, I always listen to parents.  Ebola cannot be spread as some parents have suggested.

“There are many parents who believe that the visit should have gone ahead and that we are contributing to misunderstandings by cancelling it.

“In this instance, it has been very hard to juggle justice to Miriam and the views of parents. Of course, I would never endanger any child or colleague and I have to put my trust in the professionals.

“It is with great sadness that we decided to cancel the visit; the misguided hysteria emerging is extremely disappointing, distracting us from our core purpose of educating your children and is not an environment that I would wish a visitor to experience.

“I propose that we make a sizeable donation to Educaid in recognition of the tremendous contribution made by Miriam to Sierra Leone, a country which has received more than its share of setbacks.

“Please send in whatever you can over the next week and we will make sure that it goes straight to those who need it most.”

Today, Mrs Mason-Sesay, a widow of Dulwich, East London, said: “We are being treated like lepers and it’s very sad. The school and its governors have been extremely supportive, but I’m afraid they’ve been put under undue pressure by an aggressive minority spreading panic and ignorance about this virus.

“I like to think I am a reasonable citizen and mother – and there is no way I would be wandering around with my nine-year-old if he had Ebola. We have had one case of Ebola in Britain, but just one, because we contain it. It is a difficult disease to catch but that point has not been taken on by these ignorant parents.

“Part of me thinks ‘big deal’ but we will get over it. My only concern is that all people from West Africa who come to Britain will be treated this way

“Let’s not just assume, ‘West Africans are all contagious so we need to keep them out.’ Let’s step up our pursuit of facts and justice rather than just protecting ourselves.

“There is a lot of misinformation out there so I wanted to present the facts to the parents, but it didn’t work. We have absolutely no contact with sick people – we’re an education charity.”

Mrs Mason-Sesay moved to Sierra Leone in 2000 to set up a school for vulnerable children and young adults as part of mission for the charity EducAid which she launched 14 years ago with her brother.

The first school she established in Sierra Leone had just 20 pupils, but the charity now educates 3,000 youngsters across nine sites, mostly in rural locations where the pupils ‘live in’.

In 2003 she married a local tailor Alhassan Sesay and Kofi was born in London in 2005 but moved to Sierra Leone four weeks later.

Alhassan died in 2009 of an infection in Africa and after his death, Miriam decided she’d never leave Kofi behind when visiting the UK.

Known as ‘The Angel of Freetown’, she returns to the UK twice a year to raise awareness of the charity and visit schools around the UK detailing the work they do in Africa.

AID WORKER: Miriam Mason-Sesay is known as ‘The Angel of Freetown’ (©Facebook with thanks)

Kofi has dual nationality and would accompany her on her visits to Britain and five years ago was offered an annual placement at St Simon’s during a visit. He then was registered as a pupil and would attend classes for up to a month each year.

“I have been going into schools in Stockport for the last eight years,” said Mrs Mason-Sesay.  “Usually Kofi goes into St Simon’s while I teach, for a few days or a month, however long I’m there for.

“The headteacher at St Simon’s was just very proactive and offered him a place on our first visit. They set up all the legal and insurance details and have him registered as a travelling pupil.

“It’s nice for him to go into the same class each time we come over – he’s got lots of friends.  He was only going to be there for three days on this visit and we’ve never had problems before.

“We found out about an issue with Kofi and I two weeks ago when the headteacher contacted me to say we could not visit on this occasion due to concerns about the Ebola virus and the fact we were coming in from Africa.

“The headteacher was very supportive and was saddened at having to cancel. I sent over information about the illness in an attempt to reassure parents, but it seems it was no use.

“I landed at Heathrow Airport last week and even got myself and Kofi tested which showed a level one risk – which is the lowest possible risk.

“We did that of our own volition – we didn’t have to do that – and we communicated that aswell to the school but it seems the parents had already made their minds up.

“It’s only a small group of parents who have complained but unfortunately the school have had to abide by their wishes.

“I’ve met many of these parents on a previous occasion and have had no problems before. St Simon’s is the only place where parents have rejected our visit. Parents at one other school did raise concerns, but as soon as I sent over information they realised we didn’t pose a risk to anyone.

”It’s heartbreaking. Ebola is not contained in Sierra Leone because of low levels of education and mistrust between people – the Government has been deceiving them for decades.

“It’s a difficult disease to catch and much of its spread in Africa is to do with traditional burial practices when sufferers have died.

“We’ve been met with leper-type attitudes from wealthy people overreacting and trying to protect themselves from a threat which isn’t there. The children always engage with the charity. When I raise awareness in schools, it is children helping children – they want and need the same things.

“It is about getting the kids to engage with that and letting them know there is a big, bad world out there but they can make a difference. I try to give them an experience of having changed something.”

In a newsletter sent out last month, the school reassured parents with advice from Public Health England that symptomless people travelling from Africa are not infectious.

Mrs Inman said: “It is unfortunate that some misplaced anxiety and misinformation about Ebola, amongst a small group of parents, has been circulated amongst the wider parent body. The school will continue to support Educaid by encouraging all parents to give what they can.”

Around 3,500 people have died in Africa, according to the World Health Organisation – however the figures are still low compared to other diseases such as malaria or tuberculosis.

Ebola is not generally spread through social contact or travelling on a plane with people who have become infected.

Experts have said the chances of it spreading in the UK are ‘very low’ – and there has been just one imported case from a medic who was treating patients in Sierra Leone.

A nurse in Madrid is the first person to have contracted the virus outside of West Africa after treating two missionaries who returned home to Spain from the region.

Story via Cavendish Press

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