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conversations about Ebola; people are talking about ‘dis Ebola bisnis’ relentlessly on the street; and handshaking has been replaced by a brush of the elbows.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