CONAKRY/LIBERIA (Reuters) - High school teacher Fanta Oulen Camara spent two weeks in March fighting for her life against the deadly Ebola virus but her darkest days came after she was cured of the disease and returned to her home in Guinea.
“Most of my friends stopped visiting. They didn’t speak to me. They avoided me,” the 24-year-old said. “I wasn’t allowed to teach anymore.”
The worst outbreak of Ebola on record has killed 5,000 people in West Africa, mostly in Guinea and neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone. But thousands more have survived, ostracized by fearful communities ravaged by the disease.
In the face of such stigmatization, Ebola survivors like Camara are joining an association in Guinea that assists the growing number of people who recover and seeks ways for them to help combat the disease.
Survivors are believed to have immunity from Ebola thanks to antibodies in their blood, making them a powerful weapon in a fight against the virus. A shortage of healthcare workers means weak West African governments are losing the battle to contain Ebola, despite pledges of hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid.
The virus is spread by the bodily fluids of victims, who bleed, vomit and suffer diarrhea in its final stages. Ordinary medical and sanitary staff must wear heavy Personal Protective Equipment to prevent infection, denying scared patients the chance for human contact — but survivors do not have to.
Camara, who lost six members of her family to Ebola, works with medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres at a clinic in Guinea’s dilapidated ocean-front capital Conakry.
“We share our own experience with those people, explaining that we were sick but now we have been cured,” Camara said. “We give them hope.”
In Liberia and Sierra Leone too, survivors are signing up to work in Ebola Treatment Units, to care for children orphaned by the disease, and to provide counseling to victims in an attempt to break the taboo surrounding the outbreak.
There is hope that blood from survivors can also be used as a serum to treat the disease. In Liberia, plans are underway to store survivors’ blood and the World Health Organization has said that treatment could start as early as December.
For Dr Oulare Bakary, who set up the survivors association three months after he beat Ebola, people who recover have an role to play in demystifying a virus that has caused a violent backlash, partly because it has never before struck West Africa.
Bakary was infected while treating patients in March, days before the mysterious virus in the forests of Guinea was confirmed as Ebola.
“Everyone has been facing stigma and rejection,” he said. “We needed to send a message to the people about the epidemic and also the possibility to be cured.”
He said that Camara’s story was all too common: not only had she lost her job, but when her brother went to his office, he was told to never come back as well. “It’s not only the survivors of Ebola, it’s their friends and families who are the collateral damage.”
The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, who is touring the region to assess the global response, said dealing with the stigma and fear of Ebola was central to fighting it.
This was equally true in the United States, she said, where several states have implemented mandatory 21-day quarantine periods for healthcare workers returning from West Africa after four cases were diagnosed on U.S. soil.
“You’re actually a real asset because you uniquely know the human stakes of what others are going through,” Power said, at a meeting with survivors in Conakry’s Grand Mosque.
“These people could be integrated into the solution and instead they feel sadly like part of the problem,” she said.
In Liberia, where more than half the deaths have been registered, U.N. child agency UNICEF is enlisting survivors to help care for the rising number of children whose parents have either been killed or isolated in treatment units.
UNICEF estimates that 3,700 children have been orphaned by Ebola. Many of those who survive are deeply traumatized and terrified by anyone wearing protective equipment.
Only people who have survived the disease already can bring personal care to these terrified, yet possibly contagious, kids.
“Survivors can provide that kind of human touch that is so important,” said Sheldon Yett, Liberia country director for UNICEF. “They are the key ingredient to providing support to children.”
Kpetermeni Meinu and eight other survivors work with Ebola orphans at the Willing Heart Interim Care Center in Monrovia, supported by UNICEF. They bathe children, wash their clothes and monitor for signs of the virus.
Since he has been working there, five of the 17 children have developed symptoms of the virus and been taken to a treatment unit, he says. One young boy who remains, Anthony Sheriff, is terrified of strangers and medical staff.
“He saw someone spraying his mother before going into the Ebola treatment unit and his mother died. Someone sprayed his father before taken into the ETU and his father also died,” said Meinu. “So he now thinks that whenever he sees spray with anyone, they want to kill him.”
Writing by Michelle Nichols and Daniel Flynn; Editing by Giles Elgood