Ebola in Sierra Leone – the joy of survivors

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conversations about Ebola; people are talking about ‘dis Ebola bisnis’ relentlessly on the street; and handshaking has been replaced by a brush of the elbows.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.

UNICEF Ebola Survivors Sierra Leone
© UNICEF/UNI171715/GriggersSister Nancy Yoko hold up photo of survivors who have left the Ebola Treatment Centre in Kenema.
© UNICEF Sierra Leone/2014/Dunlop

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
Isata Konneh shows off her certificate of good health © 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.

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.”

UNICEF Ebola Survivors Sierra Leone
© UNICEF/UNI171715/GriggersFatmata and her daughter Tata. © UNICEF Sierra Leone/2014/Dunlop

“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.

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 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.

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

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.

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  1. A heartwarming piece! I was in Kenema briefly last September during a 2 week visit to Freetown and Bo and was amazed at what a beautiful town, with a population who were up for anything! I hope that this outbreak ends soon and the people of this wonderful region rebuild their hopes and dreams.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read this and for your message of support Ken. We’ll be bringing more updates on the situation and the work UNICEF is doing here on the blog and on our other channels as the situation unfolds.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read this Francis. Hope you can share the good news.

  2. It is so good and nice to know people survive this terrible disease. Is there a chance of them contacting the disease again? I hope not. God bless the health workers and keep them safe, amen. UNICEF — keep up the good work. Long live Africa!

  3. my prayer and heart goes to the people of Sierra Leone especially the affected. it is heart-breaking to hear the stories about the numbers that get infected daily. we hope the survivors develop good immunity and rather volunteer to nurse the sick ones. this is a possibility that can help control new infections. let’s examine it!

  4. We would all be thankful for any good news in the future. Hardly any good news is being told in the U.S. thank you and God bless all of you for your work.

  5. This is great news. I pray for those that are still down and hope UNICEF would make the treatment regimen used for survivors available to health providers. Keep up the good work.

  6. I am lost for words reading your report. This means all is not lost for our people. Thank you medical team involved in such a very risky task where you have to subject your own lives to deadly situations. God bless you.

  7. Note that the discharge certificate that patient received on July 24 shows it stamped and signed by Doctor Sheik H. Khan in Kenema Government Hospital. The doctor himself died from Ebola on July 29. Sad.

  8. In the myriad of bad news and scary information being received everyday, it was so refreshing to read this article. I have a sense of hope after seeing the light in these survivors’ eyes. Thank you for sharing.

  9. Its resounding/reliving to hear people survive this epidemic ,my country Nigeria needs all the help it can get at the moment .God bless u as u help others.

  10. Thank God for the survivors. God bless& keep the health workers. May God keep us all save

  11. This is the best news I have read about Ebola so far. Here in Lagos Nigeria, the fear descending on most residents is so thick, you could almost touch it. But we will win this battle. The whole of West Africa will soon be rid of this deathly scourge. Keep up the good work people. More survivors please!

  12. It’s ways nice to see a message of hope in a frightful situation. This has liftedy spirit. Thank you

  13. This ia great. I hope many more people recover. Perhaps serum can be made from their blood to help treat others.

  14. I’m so happy for this group of survivors. Thank you for taking the time to provide this report. I hope we can happily share similar stories in Nigeria, the latest addition to the countries affected by Ebola. Good luck, people.

  15. What a blessing to hear these stories of hope. May we hear more encouraging news and see light at the end of this dark tunnel. Thanks and kudos to the brave health and UNICEF team working hard to educate and care for the patients.

  16. So gladdened by this piece that I had to tweet it. I believe the world should be made aware of this heart-warming news.

    1. Thank you for sharing these survivor’s stories.

  17. Very beautiful story! I am a geography student right now, and I have a dream to help the developing countries and their people to live better lives and achieve their dreams and hopes. I went to university because I love different cultures, people, worlds, also I am interested in issues such as hunger etc. I hope one day somehow I will be able to help the people around the world, thank you for publishing this story!
    With love, from Latvia

  18. Awosome report a light,of ray in the dark of world.such story will motivated humanity that at end of day it s a disease.we can beat it.thank you god

  19. Very very apt and on time . It will help many lift off their burden of the fear. Knowing that the fear of Ebola alone is able to kill. Knowing that some good can come out of this in a gruesomely affected area is enough Hope for those who are wise enough to apply some calm. Thanks for bringing that #calm . Warmest regards.

  20. I thank God who brot lite at an of d dark tunnel.wen I read d recovery stories of dose victims who got infected along d line I had tears running down my chick.I tank God for all d gud news n I believe DAT AFFLICTION SHALL NOT RETURN FOR D SECOND TIME. Amen.

  21. I want to thank all those helping out to save lives in west Africa; your generations after you shall suffer no plague…We are praying for you and I believe God that a known cure will be out before the year is over. Please Unicef do more in terms of research on vaccines that can stop it since our past leaders were asleep not to have done anything before now

  22. this is sincerely a good piece ..its a relief to know that we can still use media and shine light on both sides to a story..there is an Africa no one talks or reports ,,an Africa of hope ,resilience and tenacity to fight on
    Thank You Again

  23. Good news, kudos to all s brave Nurses who dedicate time risk there life for the common people to regain normal life. To those nurses that could became victim of the dreaded disease. God will see you through the trying time.

  24. Kudos to UNICEF,WHO and the health team for their effort in this ebola saga.The survivors has shown that there is hope for afterall.

  25. Thank you for the stories of hope in an otherwise hopeless situation. My prayers are for all the health workers who put themselves at risk to care for others. God bless you all.

  26. Bravo to UNICEF for a great job done. I am in support of what Ishmael Awini said. The survivors have grow antibodies against the virus so they should be the people to be trained to take care of new cases.

  27. To God be the Glory for this success. We need to create more awareness in Africa on isolation and quarantine precautions in the face of infectious diseases. Being proactive is key.

  28. oh glory be 2 God o, i am really very hapi for them. Thank God for saving their lives

  29. God has not forsaken us at all, hope the permanent curative vacine will be discovered soon

  30. Actually am very Happy to hear this good news, and It is also good and nice to hear that people survive from
    this terrible disease.God bless the health workers and keep
    them safe, Amen. UNICEF =keep up the
    good work. Long live Africa!

  31. Congrats to the Sierra Leone Medical Team and International Humanitarian Team that took so much risk to help victims overcome this ruthless virus. You are heroes of Africa and we are very proud of you. Hopefully the survivors’ blood or immune system could provide vaccines for West Africa? I would suggest that you help to establish and drive a West Africa Ebola Research Team (WAERT) to make history in this regard. I believe we can make it. Congratulations once again as I conclude by asking the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA) and FGN to ask the recently established Nigeria Ebola Research Committee to network with SL on this exciting window. Thanks and may God help us all.

  32. 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!!!!

  33. 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

  34. 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!

  35. 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.

  36. Thanx for the update I pray for the speedy end and to Ebola to the world as a whole.

  37. 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.

  38. 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 .

  39. 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

  40. […] 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. […]