Women's associations help to disseminate key messages on Ebola in Conakry and also raise funds for the outbreak response. Photo courtesy of WHO
Mohamed and Zena are two survivors of the Ebola outbreak in Guinea who have taken on a new role as informal Ebola Ambassadors, working with community groups to show that the disease can be prevented if people take recommended precautions.
The two Guineans, who talked about their experiences at a recent WHO Ministerial Meeting in Ghana, prefer to say they are people who were cured from Ebola. But their experience is vivid and telling, and their work is helping to shine a different light on the disease, which is being transmitted in communities in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
As people who have recovered from an often fatal disease, and have experienced the stigma and fear faced by people who are infected, their story is illuminating. The stigma is so strong they prefer not to use their real names or show their faces in print. They recount:
It started on March 14, 2014 when Mohamed’s older brother came from his village 450 km away to seek medical care in Conakry. Naturally, he stayed with his brother and family. Zena also was there and took care of her cousin. The sick man was diagnosed with malaria and typhoid fever in his village, and suffered vomiting, fever, respiratory difficulties and fatigue. A physician, also a member of the family, arrived to provide first aid in the home.
The brother‘s condition worsened and he was evacuated to the hospital, where he passed away on 18 March. The family took the body to the village. People who took care of him, helping in the funeral rituals by washing the body, and people who treated him all became ill.
The sick included Zena on her return to Conakry, Mohamed in the village, the cousin’s physician who took care of the patient at the beginning and three uncles who washed the body.
Ebola hit Mohamed and Zena’s family hard. By the time it was over, nine members of one family were infected and six died.
The older brother of Mohamed died, followed by his wife and a 10-year-old son. The boy was so attached to his father that he did not leave his side while he was ill.
Mohamed was admitted to a hospital in Conakry on March 21 along with his wife. There he found Zena and other members of the family. Altogether they were admitted to the same isolation ward, in difficult conditions. Zena said that they vomited so much that they thought they would never survive.
They were not told they have Ebola until late in their treatment. They were very sick and suffering from heat in difficult conditions, and they will never forget that they saw two of their uncles succumb to Ebola in front of their eyes.
Both said that when MSF and World Health Organization (WHO) medical and nursing staff joined the local team at the isolation facility, there were more people to care for the sick and they slowly recovered.
Mohamed said he will never forget the people who take care of us. One of their doctors back in March was Dr Rob Fowler, a physician from Canada who is seconded to WHO and has been treating patients in the field.
Fowler came to the Accra meeting and met the two people whose lives he had saved. The reunion of the three was very emotional. They huddled closely and recalled their moments together in the hospital, talked about other doctors, including another WHO physician who saw them, Dr. Tom Fletcher. They talked about those who lived and those who died.
Zena, a 24-year-old woman who was a school teacher, and Mohamed, a 34-year-old civil servant, both lost their jobs. Zena said she received a phone call from the school telling her not to come back because parents and children are afraid of Ebola contamination. It made her sad because she loved her work and the students, although some came to visit her and told her they miss her.
Mohammed said people told him they think that being an Ebola patient means that you are dead, you will never recover, that it will kill you, no matter what you do
But now they have found a way to help. Zena and Mohamed work in their communities, going from place to place to talk to people, families, relatives of the ill and others about Ebola. They work with Medecins Sans Frontieres and others, in effect acting as ambassadors.
Mohamed and Zena give talks about what Ebola is, how to prevent infections and emphasize that people who go to health centres can survive.
They are living examples.
Stigma and fear still exist but they are proud to give back some of their time and experience to communities. They contribute their personal stories and experience to save lives and control the outbreak.
Zena said, “I never heard of Ebola before, now I research and read a lot, I listen to people who work in the field and I learned a lot. I will continue to be a community worker with MSF, speak on radio, and meet journalists, but I do not want to see my picture taken. There is still a lot of stigma around us. We should stop community transmission if we want to come back to our normal lives," Mohammed said. ”When the car of MSF comes to drive us to our work, there are still people who think that we are going with MSF to get treated.”