Ebola in Sierra Leone – the joy of survivors

UNICEF Ebola Survivors Sierra Leone

Vandy Jawad on the day he left the Ebola treatment centre. © UNICEF Sierra Leone/2014/Dunlop

I travelled upcountry last week to one of the worst affected areas of Sierra Leone – Kenema. When you arrive in the town, there’s a feeling that Ebola has settled in with no plans to move any time soon. Chlorine buckets sit outside most restaurants for people to wash their hands; Ebola information posters are plastered on buildings; crackly radios are loudly broadcasting conversations about Ebola; people are talking about ‘dis Ebola bisnis’ relentlessly on the street; and handshaking has been replaced by a brush of the elbows.

Spending a few days around people who have been tragically affected by this disease was an unforgettably sad experience. I was however heartened by meeting some of the lucky people who are surviving Ebola.

Sierra Leone is now recording the highest number of new cases each week of all the West African countries affected, including Guinea and Liberia. What makes this outbreak unique though, is the increasing number of survivors – growing gradually to a current total of 143 people across Sierra Leone from the almost 500 people who have contracted it.

The Ebola ward of Kenema Hospital is now packed to capacity with 45 Ebola patients and numbers growing each day; however stories of survivors are starting to emerge regularly. Each day at around 3pm, survivors are released from the Ebola treatment centre located on the grounds of the hospital – it is a moment of unlikely joy and relief, in a place where so much tragedy exists.

Vandy Jawad 7, is a reminder of hope and survival in an otherwise deeply tragic situation. He was in the treatment centre at Kenema for more than one month after contracting the virus in Daru village about 40 km out of Kenema town, and one of the worst affected communities in Sierra Leone.

According to nurses, he displayed some very serious symptoms when first admitted, “That small boy was very, very sick. We did not think he would survive as so many haven’t,” said Sister Nancy Yoko, the nurse in charge of the Ebola Treatment Centre in Kenema.

Vandy started showing signs of recovery a couple of weeks ago slowly gathering his strength. When he finally achieved a negative test result, which revealed there was no more Ebola virus in his system, it was time for him to go home.

“Little Vandy provided laughter at the most unlikely moments inside that ward, I’m so happy for his recovery, “ commented a British volunteer nurse who treated him inside the centre.

UNICEF Ebola Survivors Sierra Leone

Sister Nancy Yoko hold up photo of survivors who have left the Ebola Treatment Centre in Kenema.
© UNICEF Sierra Leone/2014/Dunlop

Before patients leave the ward, they are presented with transport money to get home (about US$10), a clean set of clothes, and a certificate declaring that they are healthy and no longer have Ebola. They are photographed and congratulated by staff, and in humble way, celebrated for their resilience.

Vandy was also given a small plastic truck and showed it off to all the nurses before he left the restricted compound area with an enormous grin on his face. “It’s nice for the children to have a toy before they go, it makes them happy, look at Vandy,” said Sister Nancy.

UNICEF Ebola Survivors Sierra Leone

Isata Konneh shows off her certificate of good health © UNICEF Sierra Leone/2014/Dunlop

Isata Konneh (35) was another patient who I met leaving the ward. She had tears in her eyes and proudly displayed her certificate to the nurses “I am so happy for this day, I thank God that he has helped me survive” she says.

Many of those contracting the virus are themselves health workers who come in daily contact with very sick patients. Six nurses from the Kenema Treatment Centre, have died. Among the staff infected is survivor Fatmata Sesay who I met after she was released from the ward along with her 11-year-old daughter Tata. Fatmata spent three weeks in the ward while Tata was there for two, “I am the happiest person in the world right now.”

“I knew I was very sick as I was bleeding through my nose and vomiting blood clots, but I am lucky, I am better now and so is Tata. It is not easy to recover from this terrible disease,” says Fatmata.

UNICEF Ebola Survivors Sierra Leone

Fatmata and her daughter Tata. © UNICEF Sierra Leone/2014/Dunlop

As the survivors leave the hospital there are often several local media waiting to photograph them and hear their story. Fatmata raises her arms in the air, “I thank Allah and the nurses who have cared for me, we are alive”.

Ebola survivors can play a valuable role in dispelling myths and in gaining community support in the fight against Ebola. Some people in Sierra Leone still have not accepted that Ebola is real. While many survivors fear stigma, some are now coming forward and telling their brave stories. Community mobilisation is a vital part of the Ebola response and these testimonies will help communities to accept that Ebola is a serious illness that the community must fight it together.

UNICEF Ebola Survivors Sierra Leone

When survivors leave the Ebola Treatment Centre, they are given about $US10 for transport to get home, a clean set of clothes and a certificate of good health. Children are also given toys. They are often met outside the Treatment Centre grounds by local media who are eager to hear their stories.
© UNICEF Sierra Leone/2014/Dunlop

UNICEF is working with the Ministry of Health and Sanitation and other health partners to provide support to the Ebola response through supply of drugs and equipment and by supporting the vital social mobilization and communication efforts to ensure that people are correctly informed. Messages about prevention, how to identify symptoms and how to seek medical support are critical.

Ebola has no known cure or preventative vaccine – with a 50-90% case fatality rate. It spreads through contact with body fluids of infected people who have symptoms of the illness or through animal carriers like fruit bats, primates, antelopes and porcupine. Cases that report early to treatment centers have a greater chance of survival.

Jo Dunlop is a UNICEF consultant based in Sierra Leone.

Read about a survivor’s story from Guinea.

78 replies

  1. Thank God,I actually thought that this virus is a death warrant,I never knew that people can survive it,the scourge was unbearable. Thanks for sharing this info,its a sure sign of hope,I felt relieved after reading it. May God sustain all the health workers there,here in Nigeria and other Ebola infested countries. You guys are doing a great job. UNICEF, WELDONE!!!!

  2. As I read this I am so thankful that there are people who are selfless enough to treat the Ebola victims. I am so happy to hear of little Vandi’s story and all the survivors story. May God Almighty bless all the Doctors, Health Workers and all others who are volunteering in my Country Sierra Leone and all the Ebola affected countries. God alone will be able to compensate you for your scrifises. For those who have lost their battle with this deadly virus, we will remember you and your family in our players. Grace UK

  3. Truly, there is good in humanity! We all need to stand by one another. We pray this Ebola outbreak will finally die out, and many more lives be spared. The sacrifices of the health workers who fought and lost in this epic stand-off between a cure-less disease and humanity should never be forgotten! Those should become our legends! Those who are still carrying on with the fight, are our living heroes! And we appreciate especially, those from other parts of the world who could have stayed back in the safety of their countries and watched with folded arms, but rather chose to fold up their sleeves and jump right into the thick of this war, they have hearts of gold, which money can never pay for or buy! Those, who even though in their countries, but their hearts were here, figuring out how to tame this monster, and produced drugs that have saved, and will continue to save lives, bravo! There have been so many unsung heroes since this saga began, and they cannot all be mentioned here, but the same prayer goes out to all – God bless you all, and multiply your wisdom! You are appreciated!

  4. Last time I heard hospitals in Sierra Leone were closed because health workers fear they would get infected as they have suffered enough loss to ebola but thank God there are still volunteers and their service is helping so much and hope is gradually restored. At least for the people who have survived so far we thank God, UNICEF and all volunteers and pray that may God give you the grace to continue in this good work and may he keep you in this selfless task.

  5. Certainly, like any other viral infection some sort of herd immunity could have started to have taken root. Moreover, there could be other infected persons who might not have developed the full blown disease but have been partially immunised against the disease following exposure to the virus. We expect that as the pool of human hosts decreases, the virus this time around will just fade away. Remember, man is not the definitive host – just a jump from animal to man in one instance….a zoonosis.

  6. A great piece Jo! I am based in the UK and recently travelled to Sierra Leone, even the well educated and internationally exposed individuals I came across were so ignorant to this deadly illness. Last night I made up my mind to start fundraising here in the UK. I didn’t know exactly how I was going to execute my plan once funds raised but all I did know is that I wanted to help those families affected by Ebola whether be it infected or just attached to the stigma. As for the doctors and nurses…..what can I say? These people continue to strive to support the sick against all odds. If our raised funds can help just one person similar to those featured in this article then it would mean the world….genuinely .

  7. Thank Almighty God for the healings & a light of hope as the number of recoverees continue.
    Question? Can blood transfusion of the blood of recovered victims to sick victims not assist with increasing the numbers of those recovered and reduce the death rate? I know that matching blood types and screening for other diseases in the donors blood is mandatory. But can we not device a cost effective process to mass produce serum locally from the blood of those who have recovered?
    George Logan

  8. […] Em Serra Leoa e em Guiné, o UNICEF está trabalhando com o Ministério da Saúde e Saneamento e outros parceiros de saúde para dar suporte à resposta contra o ebola através do fornecimento de medicamentos e equipamentos, e apoiando nos esforços de mobilização social e comunicação com mensagens sobre prevenção, de como identificar os sintomas e como procurar apoio médico. […]

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