It isn’t enough that those stricken with the deadly disease suffered tremendous physical and emotional pain, especially those who lost family members to the virus.
Those lucky enough to survive the virus find themselves facing a different kind of ongoing pain – prejudice. They are marked socially with a different kind of Ebola stigma, that of survivors. This stigma comes with severe prejudice when they attempt to return home and rebuild their lives.
What the disease didn’t rob from Ebola survivors, their neighbors and general population have. The trauma and social outcast stigma is difficult if not almost impossible for survivors to overcome.
In December 2014, Nature reported that it was necessary for government agencies and international organizations to assist Ebola survivors to “reintegrate into society” due to the extreme prejudice being exhibited toward them. (2)
The article gave an example of Ebola survivor Fatima Kamara now serving as a nurse at an Ebola treatment center. Fatima’s neighbors call her home the “Ebola Compound”. Still fearful of contracting the deadly virus, they avoid her.
Understanding the Psychology behind the Prejudice
The majority of people in Sierra Leone have never experienced an Ebola outbreak.
Familiar with the fatality rate of the virus, it’s very difficult for people to accept that someone can possibly survive the virus. Most believe Ebola is a death sentence with no exceptions.
Even though this is not true and many have survived thanks to the dedication of caregivers, the belief is so strong that it colors everything related to Ebola, even the survivors.
In July 2014, WHO (World Health Organization) published an article from the perspective of two Ebola survivors, Mohamed (34) and Zena (24) who lost family members as well as their jobs during their illnesses. Mohamed had been a civil servant while Zena had taught school. Both names are fictional since neither wanted to add to the existing stigma and prejudices they still face. (3)
Zena wasn’t wanted back as a teacher since parents and students were afraid she’d infect them with Ebola. She found work with Medecins Sans Frontieres and other organizations as did Mohamed.
Together they serve as ambassadors, going from town to town to explain how to prevent the spreading of the virus and most importantly, why early treatment as the key to surviving Ebola.
Other Ebola Survivors Paying It Forward
Many Ebola survivors are now serving as nurses and caregivers to Ebola patients. Others are counselors working in outreach programs to help prevent the spread of the virus and help other survivors cope with returning home.
While they have survived the deadly disease, it’s come at a high price of weakened health and the undeserved stigma and discrimination.
Is the outreach and education working? The latest survey conducted by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) revealed 14% of the Sierra Leone respondents wouldn’t welcome neighbor survivors back home. That’s a significant decrease over the August 2014 survey that revealed 94% negative responses to survivors. (4) The strategy to provide information seems to be working.
The same survey mentioned above also showed that 31% wouldn’t purchase vegetables from Ebola survivor produce shop owners while 46% still openly expressed prejudice of these Ebola survivors.
With the help of UNICEF and the Sierra Leonean government, many of the survivors are employed by various organizations to work and care for Ebola patients.
Sierra Leone Ebola Survivor Support Conferences
The first of four UNICEF sponsored support conferences was held December 18, 2014. The conferences are organized to assist survivors in returning to their communities by providing a way for survivors to connect with each other. This support forum has helped organizations and the government understand the survivors’ needs, such as clothing, all of which was destroyed while being treated for Ebola. Bedding is also another item that needs replacing.
In response, relief organizations have put together “kits” that include a mattress, kitchen equipment, buckets and clothing. In addition, each survivor is given a “resettlement allowance of Le250,000 [$59.01 USD]”. (5)
Many survivors have no home or job to return to. Some survivors with a home often return to find it too difficult to live among gossiping neighbors and soon move away. Many are finding jobs with health organizations to rebuild a rewarding life.
While survivors are believed to be immune to possible re-infection of Ebola, those working with Ebola patients are required to take precautions. Their attire is “light” personal protective equipment such as “yellow surgical gowns” instead of the waterproof Tyvek white suits.
No one knows definitively if survivors have long-term immunity to the Ebola virus. According to the IRD (Institute Research and Development), a 65–year-old French research organization, typically a memory immune response is left after surviving a disease and Ebola seems to follow this norm. Traditionally, there have been too few survivors to test.
However, IRD has conducted the most extensive immunity research on Ebola over a period of three years. Their findings indicate that “…antibodies react specifically against one or more proteins of the [Ebola] virus.” (6)
The individuals with Ebola antibodies, some who never had Ebola “…developed specific antibodies against Ebola.” The Ebola immune memory is “…similar to that generated by vaccines whose effectiveness against Ebola in animals has been shown in previous studies.” The researchers are now studying whether or not the presence of these antibodies means that the people “…are naturally protected against new infection.”
As more and more people receive early medical attention and prevention methods are used to stop the spread of the Ebola virus, hopefully the stigma Ebola survivors suffer will lessen and eventually disappear.