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Ebola survivors still face fear, stigma in Sierra Leone

The World Health Organization may have declared the most recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa over as of last March, but many people in Sierra Leone still find themselves segregated from their families and communities—a carryover of efforts to stop the spread of the highly contagious disease.
Tamba M'bayo
Tamba M’bayo, assistant professor of history at West Virginia University, travelled to Sierra Leone last summer to interview survivors in the villages for an article he’s working on exploring Ebola and its relation to poverty, economic inequity and social injustice.

Contacting survivors, however, was not an easy task.

“It was difficult [because] there was a lot of stigma attached to people who had been afflicted by the virus,” said M’bayo, a native of Sierra Leone. “So much so, that a lot of people … would refrain from identifying themselves as Ebola survivors.”

The virus, which attacks the immune and vascular systems, is spread through direct contact—often infecting healthcare providers. International fear of contamination spread like wildfire during the 2014 outbreak, resulting in the isolation of patients who were infected with or showed symptoms of the virus. The total amount of deaths in Sierra Leone reached 3,956 by June 2015.

There are currently no Federal Drug Administration-approved vaccinations for the Ebola virus, but symptoms, such as fever fatigue, impaired kidney and liver functions, and internal and external bleeding can be treated as they appear. Patients that recover from the virus are no longer contagious, but people in Sierra Leone still fear contamination.

While visiting Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, M’bayo learned about the Sierra Leone Association of Ebola Survivors, a non-profit organization working to support the people affected by the virus. M’bayo was able to arrange interviews through the organization with survivors ranging in age from 10-75.

After recovery, some of the people complained of sight issues, joint pain and, for the women, problems with their menstrual cycles. The youngest interviewee, a 10-year-old boy, was losing his ability to speak and hear.

“His dad told me that it was an effect of the Ebola virus,” M’bayo said. “…He was losing his speech to the point where his dad was thinking of teaching him sign language to make it easier for them to communicate.”

The boy’s speech problems have prevented him from participating in school, said M’bayo. Although the boy’s parents dress him and send him to school, he is unable to focus or understand the lessons.

“Sometimes some of the kids do not even want to play with him,” M’bayo said. “Even though he has been declared Ebola-free.”

This situation is familiar to many Ebola survivors. Hospitals gave patients certificates declaring that they were Ebola-free so that they could return to work or school, but many still felt isolated after their release.

“The government has been trying to go on a campaign to inform people about the Ebola virus, trying to educate them about accepting the people back into society,” said M’bayo. “You see a lot of billboards around [Freetown] and programs on the radio.

“But the reality is, it’s really a challenge for the Ebola survivors. Most of them complained about people having a very negative attitude toward them,” he said. “Some of them acknowledged that some of their neighbors, their relatives and friends had been very helpful, and that they were not really discriminated against, even when they knew that they had the Ebola virus. At the same time, there were a lot of stories I heard that suggest that not everyone accepted them.”

Some people were kicked out of their homes by their landlords, leaving them with nowhere to return to when they were released from the hospital, M’bayo said. Other survivors lost jobs.

“Even at the time that I was speaking to [the survivors], you could sense through people’s body language, or their attitude toward them, that they were still not fully convinced that you could actually have contact with them without catching the virus,” M’bayo said.

“Generally speaking, most of the people affected by the virus are very poor people,” M’bayo said. “Why is that? Because of living conditions and access to healthcare—very limited. We also have issues with poor infrastructure and limited healthcare facilities.

“The government was very slow in taking action to prevent the spread of the virus, even after they heard about how deadly the virus was, and how rapidly it was spreading.”

It wasn’t until healthcare providers began contracting the virus that the Sierra Leonean government declared a state of emergency—five months after the first case of Ebola had been identified within the country.

Many survivors also told M’bayo that the Sierra Leonean government promised them free healthcare, but were unable to finish their treatment because the hospitals began demanding payment.

M’bayo will present his findings at the African Studies Association Conference, December 1-3 in Washington, D.C.

Photo credit: Tamba M'bayo