Amid the horror of Ebola in West Africa, where more than 1,400 people have died of the disease, a few have found reason to celebrate after recovering from the virulent infection which has no known cure.
Current Ebola treatment is mainly palliative: easing the headache, fever and muscle pain triggered by the virus, which also causes vomiting and diarrhoea, and in some cases internal and external haemorrhage. It killed up to 90 percent of patients in the early days of the outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“We can’t do anything else because there is no treatment for the virus. The only thing we can do is help the body fight the virus and develop immunity,” said Julie Damond, spokeswoman for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in West Africa.
If the symptomatic treatment works, the body rebuilds its defences and health is restored. In the ongoing outbreak in West Africa - the worst known so far - 47 percent of patients have been able to recover, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). MSF says it has seen recovery rates of 25-75 percent in its isolation centres in Guinea and Sierra Leone.
The medical aid group reported that since the outbreak started, 95 out of 177 patients confirmed to have been infected with Ebola in its treatment centres in Guinea recovered, and 52 out of 204 survived in Sierra Leone. Liberia is yet to report such figures as the MSF centre there opened just recently.
“I’m not sure there’s clear knowledge as to why some people die and others recover. What we know for sure is that the earlier the disease is tackled the better the chances of survival. But this may not be entirely scientific because there is little study in this area,” Damond told IRIN.
“It is impossible to know when a patient is admitted whether they will recover or not. It’s not about the age or gender.”
Survival and ostracism
Doctors and nurses treating Ebola patients and families looking after sick relatives at home are the most at risk of contracting the disease. More than 120 health workers in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone have so far died of Ebola, according to WHO.
The deaths have caused panic and further dysfunction within the already weak health system. The fear has driven some families to shun hospitals, seeing the health institutions as posing a danger rather than offering help. Liberia and Sierra Leone have, in response, taken drastic measures, declaring the outbreak a national emergency, quarantining hotspots and drawing in security forces to ensure compliance.
“Ebola is horrible, notorious and devastating,” said Melvin Korkor, a 44-year-old Liberian doctor who recently recovered from Ebola.
Korkor was the first doctor at Phebe Hospital in the central Liberian town of Gbarnga to have tested positive for Ebola in July. He was then transferred to the capital Monrovia for treatment along with five colleague nurses, all of whom died.
“It is something that is really hard to explain. The same treatment that was given to the other Ebola patients was the one given to me. There was no special treatment because I am a doctor. So probably it is God’s divine intervention that spared my life and today I am back home and reunited with my family,” said Korkor.
Upon Dr Korkor’s return, some of his neighbours kept away out of fear, but others have been encouraged by his recovery. “We were so sad when we heard the news [about his illness]. At least now we know that there are people who can get cured of Ebola once you check yourself in on time,” said Larry Tonnie, one of Korkor’s neighbours. “We are glad to have him back.”
With the high Ebola death rates, fear still abounds and some survivors face ostracism even after being declared virus-free. “When I was discharged, those who thought I’d die were dumbfounded,” said Conakry resident Hawa Kourouma, recounting that she fell ill after attending the funeral of a neighbour.
“I have since lost my job and nearly all my friends. Very few dare come near me believing that I still have the virus. But I thank God that I recovered. That is the most important thing,” she said.
WHO has exceptionally authorized the use of experimental Ebola vaccines, but the risks of such drugs are still unknown and the few supplies available are causing a dilemma as to who should be given priority of treatment.
As the outbreak grew worse, experts decried harmful traditions such as burial rituals and myths nobbling the efforts to break the infections chain. Mistrust and hostility towards aid groups among some communities have also driven up cases, but perhaps the toughest barrier to beating back the outbreak has been the weak public health systems of the worst-hit West African states.
Some hope that the tales of patients who have recovered from Ebola can help shore up trust in conventional medicine and preventive measures that are aimed at averting risky exposure. Sierra Leone, for instance, has passed a law that makes harbouring Ebola patients criminal. However, distrust of public institutions and governments are much more difficult to overcome.
“What we have seen in this outbreak is that when people come early to be treated, they have a better chance of surviving .This is a message we are trying to get out there so that people understand that while Ebola is a serious, deadly disease, we do have people walking out of our treatment centres completely recovered and going back to their communities,” said MSF’s Damond.