As we headed toward the gate, a young boy passing by glanced at us and said: “That’s the Ebola house.”
The doctor pushed the rusty gate open with the sole of her shoe, warning me not to touch anyone or anything. “Not the walls, not the doors, nothing.”
An eerie silence filled the empty courtyard that leads to the Lagos house where a nurse died of Ebola. The five families – 26 people in all – who shared the house with her were being monitored for possible signs of the dreaded disease.
I wasn’t sure what to expect and I must admit that my apprehension was high as I accompanied the doctor who had been visiting the house on a daily basis to monitor the health of the 26 people listed as contacts – meaning they had contact with a person who had Ebola.
Each family has its own separate room, but the bathroom is shared by all the compound’s residents. The doctor called out someone’s name and people began to emerge from the doorway. Within a few minutes about a dozen people, young and old, had gathered. Greetings were made, but we remained a couple of yards (meters) away from the contact persons.
All of them had brought along their digital thermometers so their temperature could be recorded. One of the first symptoms that Ebola patients tend to exhibit is a fever. All the contacts were given a thermometer and told to take their temperature daily for 21 days, the incubation period of the Ebola virus.
The contact monitoring teams meet every contact person daily to make sure temperatures are properly taken and recorded. Anyone who develops a fever or shows any of the other Ebola symptoms, such as vomiting, diarrhea, headache, or a rash, is taken to the treatment facility for testing. There is no known cure for Ebola, but proper clinical care, if started early, can greatly increase chances of survival. In Nigeria, 12 of the 19 cases confirmed by September 16, survived.
But survivors face another battle after fighting off the disease – stigmatization – which also affects their families and anyone they had contact with. In the compound, I asked what life has been like since the nurse had taken ill and passed away. Everyone wanted to talk at once, and all said they had been contending with stigmatization in one form or another.
Three of the men living in the house had lost their jobs – two of them had just been informed that morning. Both of them worked as security guards for a nearby church that they attended. The third was a private driver.
Community members who used to come into the compound to draw water from the well now stayed away, even though the house was decontaminated the day that the nurse was taken to the hospital.
“If we go out onto the street, people run away from us. They are afraid,” one of the contact persons said.
“We’re hungry-o,” an older man said, pointing to his stomach. “People won’t sell us food, they won’t take our money. It’s three days now since we’ve eaten and we’re hungry.” All of those standing around nodded in agreement. .
The families in the compound were not receiving any assistance. When they told me that they had not eaten anything for three days because nobody would sell them any food…that really tugged at my heartstrings.
As we drove away the man’s words “We’re hungry-o” kept ringing in my head. The children, the adults…they’d done nothing wrong. They were simply being monitored for their own safety and that of their community.
I just had to get them some provisions – bread, rice, and ground cassava. I re-entered the courtyard after pushing the door open with the sole of my shoe. They seemed surprised to see me return so quickly, and their eyes lit up as I put the plastic bags filled with food down on the small bench. Everyone reassembled and thanked me. Such a small gesture…but one that made a big difference to these hungry children, women and men.
The following day, I was told that, somehow, news of me giving them food reached the local government authorities, who then provided some more supplies.
Terry Howard is a Staff Counsellor at UNICEF Nigeria. Since the Ebola outbreak started in Nigeria, he has been providing psycho-social counselling to people affected by the disease in Lagos and Port Harcourt. UNICEF is playing a key role in sensitizing people about Ebola, to help contain the spread of the disease and to combat stigmatization.