Normal life has proved elusive for Ebola survivors who struggle with health complications and face discrimination from people who still fear the deadly virus. It’s also been difficult for the country’s 8,500 children orphaned by the disease.
Abubakarr Sillah and his brother lost their parents to Ebola.
“We rely on handouts from neighbors, otherwise there is no reliable means for our everyday survival,” Sillah told United Methodist News Service eight months after the tragedy.
The brothers, who live at Deep Yai Wata in rural Freetown, also lost three siblings to Ebola. Abubakarr, an older teenager, dropped out of school because there was nobody to pay his fees after his parents died.
The deadliest Ebola outbreak in history killed 3,589 people in Sierra Leone, including 221 healthcare workers. Eleven were doctors, including Dr. Martin Salia, chief medical officer and surgeon at United Methodist Kissy Hospital in Freetown.
This is the second story in a series about the aftermath of Ebola in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Additional stories later this month will examine the problems of other illnesses that increased during the outbreak and United Methodist healthcare in Liberia.
Health problems linger
The outbreak infected 8,704 in Sierra Leone. Most of the more than 4,000 survivors face a range of health problems.
Those include uveitis or inflammatory eye problems, hearing difficulties, severe body pain, headache, hair loss, mental health issues and, for women, menstrual difficulties, according to Dennis Karimu, a former nurse at United Methodist Mercy Hospital in Bo.
Karimu himself survived Ebola. He and his colleague, Alima Koroma, caught Ebola when they unknowingly treated an Ebola patient admitted for other health conditions at Mercy Hospital. Both survived, and Karimu now works as nurse and counselor at the Post-Ebola Treatment Center in Bo, where the health and welfare concerns of Ebola survivors are addressed.
He also is chairman of the association of Ebola survivors in the Bo District. In that role, Karimu coordinates activities on behalf of all Ebola survivors in the district — attending meetings, sharing information from organizations and agencies that support Ebola survivors and helping survivors take advantage of opportunities available to them in the district.
Since June 2014, The United Methodist Church has been responding to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and developing long-term support to health boards in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire and other partners.
If you would like to give financially to support the goals of this long-term approach, please give to UMCOR Global Health, Advance #3021770. One hundred percent of your donation will help Global Ministries to work with local partners to strengthen healthcare capacities to confront this and other health challenges.
Mariama Lahai, 29, experiences severe pain during menstruation even though she had no problems before Ebola. She also suffers hair loss and has a hearing problem that causes an unusual sound in her left ear. Lahai said she had long, beautiful hair before her infection but now has to cover her shredding hair. She was being treated at the Post Ebola Treatment Center when she spoke about her condition to UMNS.
Lahai, a nurse attached to the Bo Government Hospital, caught Ebola from a patient she treated at the medical ward for women. She said a staff nurse helped a patient dodge triage screening.
“I received the bad news of the patient’s Ebola infection when a colleague called me at home after my night duty and said the patient was Ebola positive. My colleague told me on the phone that the patient had revealed to the nurses after her positive laboratory test that her son died of Ebola a few weeks before. I immediately broke down but prayed, ‘God, may your will be done.’ I started observing myself for symptoms. After two days, I had a severe headache and ran to the hospital,” Lahai said. After testing positive, she was sent to the Bo Ebola Treatment Center at Bandajuma.
Stigma dogs survivors
Lahai said she has been stigmatized in her community as a survivor. A neighbor’s child called Lahai’s 7-year-old daughter “a virus.”
“My daughter returned very bitter and was weeping. I know the child called my daughter a virus based on what she hears the adults in the neighborhood say about us. At times, the neighbors make offensive remarks about Ebola just to hurt us,” she said.
Lahai said she feels disturbed every time people mention Ebola in a conversation near her. She said that sometimes children even sing provocative songs about Ebola around her.
A woman who caught Ebola from her sister says the family has faced housing discrimination. The woman, whose name is being withheld to protect her, said the family has been asked to leave three different homes when the landlords found out they were Ebola survivors. One former landlord even went to their new rental to tell the owner the family had had Ebola.
“People look low upon us in the community. The landlord returned the rent my mother had paid and asked us to leave. Up to this morning, we were looking for a new place to rent. Stigmatization is the newest challenge we are encountering,” she said.
Dr. Omar Lamin, the medical officer at United Methodist Kissy Hospital in Freetown believes stigma may be one reason Ebola patients do not come to the hospital for care.
“Patients hardly admit they are Ebola survivors; maybe out of fear of stigmatization. Not one patient has told me they are Ebola survivors,” he said, although he believes some of his patients are.
He admonishes all to stop stigmatizing Ebola survivors so that they will feel comfortable declaring their status when they come to the hospital.
Many Ebola survivors showed up for free uveitis treatment at the Gess Eye Hospital in eastern Freetown early in the year and many continue to visit the Post Ebola Treatment Center in Bo. That seems to indicate survivors are more comfortable seeking care at facilities that specifically target Ebola survivors — places where they won’t be stigmatized and can share problems and coping strategies.
More survivors visited the Gess Eye Hospital when the Ebola treatment started than do now.
To Dr. Agnes Mambu, a cataract surgeon, it is an indication that most of them have already been treated for their conditions. She also believes financial difficulties could keep them from seeking treatment.
“We have heard stories from survivors that they do not have money to pay transport to come to (the) hospital, and so (they) do not come even when they are ill. We explain to them that if they come to this hospital, they are treated free. But because they do not have money to pay their way to come, they do not come,” she said.
“They do not have money to take care of themselves and a few who had jobs were fired when they caught Ebola. Some say their relatives died of Ebola and hence they have nobody to take care of them.”
Jusu is director of communications for The United Methodist Church in Sierra Leone. News media contact: Vicki Brown at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].