Shortly after the outbreak of Ebola in Guinea, when it seemed like bad news was the only news, UNICEF’s office in Guinea started to receive reports of something that seemed almost impossible given the climate. Ebola victims were being released from the hospital, completely recovered. They were healthy and even given certificates signed by health authorities stating that they could safely return to normal life.
We knew that there would be a few survivors, but the initial days of the outbreak were grim enough to turn most optimists into cynics. Talk of very high mortality rates; a rapid spread of the virus to the capital and beyond the borders in neighboring countries; and a palpable fear on the streets zapped the psychic energy of us who live and work here.
But there they were: people, weak and squinting in the bright sunlight but healthy, emerging from isolation wards. And not just the lucky few we expected, but more than 30 per cent of those infected were surviving.
The story in the media quickly turned to the stigmatization of these people. Journalists talked about how they were not welcome at work, school, even at home, but for many the stigma passed quickly and still others were welcomed back, almost immediately, into their old lives.
UNICEF sat down with an Ebola survivor, one of the earlier cases in the country – Kadiatou*. She met us on a main street in Conakry and walked us back to her home, through scores of children playing football on muddy roads. We sat on plastic chairs in a circle while her mother hung the laundry behind us.
“I have no idea where I got Ebola,” she said as she chewed on a sachet of ready-to-use therapeutic food—as part of her post-Ebola treatment. Ready-to-use therapeutic food is normally provided by UNICEF as life-saving emergency nutrition to the thousands of children here who suffer from severe acute malnutrition. Ebola victims lose a lot of nutrients and fluids as a result of vomiting and diarrhea and the ready-to-use therapeutic food help them regain their strength.
“I am a medical student, and in my work, I encounter many sick people.”
Kadiatou’s initial symptoms were pretty typical of many illnesses—a sudden onset, pounding headache and high fever, followed by vomiting and diarrhea. Her knowledge as a medical student probably prevented Kadiatou from spreading Ebola to those caring for her. “When my Aunt would clean up my vomit, I insisted that she wash her hands with bleach.”
As part of our response UNICEF has distributed many of the materials families are using to protect their family members, including over 350,000 bottles of chlorine, almost one million bars of soap, and materials for disinfecting hospital rooms and victims’ homes.
A few days after Kadiatou tested positive for Ebola she was sent directly to the isolation ward in Donka hospital. The isolation center was busy. Families brought food to their sick relatives. And, “there were many journalists.”
“In the beginning we were all in the same room. But as patients improved, they were separated from those who weren’t as fortunate. I first knew I was going to survive when I saw a patient recovering. I thought, ‘maybe it is possible for me too’. For the first few days, I was desperate. I drank a lot of mineral water and had infusions…maybe it helped me to survive.”
After what must have seemed like an eternity for her, but in real time was a matter of weeks, Kadiatou was given new clothes, a certificate declaring her healthy, and was sent home.
We asked her about the widely reported stigma that affected survivors. “When I went back to school, some of my friends avoided me, but it’s getting better. People don’t believe that I had Ebola because they can’t believe I survived.”
Of course, Kadiatou is aware that Ebola is real. But UNICEF remains vigilant in keeping the public informed. We have been in the markets, mosques, churches, schools, on the radio and the television providing information on Ebola so health workers and regular people are armed with the knowledge to protect themselves and their children. To date, UNICEF and our partners in Guinea have reached over 3.2 million people.
“Others call me, ‘Kadiatou the new born’—because I was given a second chance.”
Timothy La Rose is a UNICEF Communication Specialist based in Conakry, Guinea.
For more up-to-date information about the Ebola outbreak visit the World Health Organization’s website.