Ebola survivors work to improve response

The Ebola epidemic has killed some 5,000 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, but it has also left many survivors who are playing a key role in the Ebola response.

Scientists believe that once someone survives Ebola that person will become immune to that strain of the virus for many years.

Many public health officials see survivors as a highly valued commodity in a struggle against a disease that has decimated so many people on the front line.

In Sierra Leone, the Ministry of Health says it has been working with survivors to see what role they can play in Ebola response and treatment efforts. In October, along with UNICEF and other partners, they held the first in a series of survivor conferences in Kenema, where survivors come together to tell their stories and discuss what they can do to help current patients.

"We really want to see how we can utilize survivors more as mobilizers and contact tracers," said Sidie Y. Tunis, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health.

Survivors are already working in roles perceived by many as dangerous. Fanta Lavaly, for example, works in an interim care facility for children who have lost their parents to Ebola in Sierra Leone's Kailahun District. Many of the children there have been living as outcasts in their own communities.

"Some of these children may be infected with the virus without anyone knowing about it," Lavaly told IRIN. "As such, it's very difficult for a non-survivor to touch these kids."

These children, sick or not, especially need someone to comfort them when they are sad, or play with them when they are happy.

"As a survivor doing this work, taking care of other people's children who have died of the Ebola virus makes me feel that I'm representing those parents and giving comfort and hope to their children," said Lavaly, who lost several members of her family, including some of her own children.

In Liberia, UNICEF has been working on a similar programme and has trained survivors to look after children who are under 21-day isolation watch. "It gives them something to do and helps the children," said Rukshan Ratnam, a spokesperson for UNICEF in Liberia. "Children require a hug and not from someone coming towards them in a space suit."

Saa-Quatre Kamano sometimes works on the intake desk at the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) treatment unit in Guéckédou, the town in the forested region of Guinea where the outbreak started. He also still does community outreach and education about the disease in the surrounding villages, the job that first got him sick.

"I thought about doing something else after I recovered from Ebola," Kamano told IRIN. "But MSF still accepted me and since my role has been as an activist, I could not just leave it."

When he first recovered from the Ebola virus and left the MSF treatment unit, life was tough. "I was rejected," said Kamano. "The friends that I used to have, they would not eat with me or walk with me."

However, when he goes to work, he forgets all about his personal struggles. "I am a hero now," Kamano said.

Motivating others

At the Bomi Ebola Treatment Unit in northwest Liberia, survivors like 19-year-old Patience Kamara have been working as orderlies, cleaning up after the highly contagious Ebola patients.

"I'm happy to be working here, because I want for other people to not die too," Patience told IRIN. She lost four members of her family to Ebola, as well her unborn child after she got Ebola when she was six months pregnant.

Gobee Logan is the chief medical officer of Bomi County and head of the Bomi County Ebola Treatment Unit. He says encouraging people like Patience to work at the treatment centre will motivate other Ebola patients to take their medication.

"If you tell a patient, 'Look this person was sick like you, now you see them helping to treat you,' that patient will be encouraged to take their medication, hoping to be well too," Logan told IRIN.

In short, survivors can lead by example. By sharing their experiences with others and helping more people understand that Ebola is not always a death sentence, survivors can motivate reluctant people to get treated.

UNICEF-Liberia has been working with survivors to do more messaging within their communities in order to counter the rumours that have led many people to be afraid of treatment units and shun medical help. Survivors have been speaking out about how well they were treated in the treatment centres and how it is the best way to beat the virus.

Beyond the advantages of their immunity, some survivors feel a moral obligation to work on the Ebola response. Back in Guéckédou, Eloi Tadjino is a psychologist with an MSF treatment centre and got infected with Ebola while doing community outreach in the region.

He said there was never any doubt in his mind that he would go back once he had recovered from the virus. "It's my community that is in danger, and the homeland is priceless."

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