Ebola: Survivors at the frontline of the response [Gallery]

21 October, 2014
Credit: OCHA/Yasmina Guerda
Credit: OCHA/Yasmina Guerda

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that over 650 people have survived Ebola in Sierra Leone. Far too many, however, have succumbed. In a climate of constant fear, pulling through Ebola comes with a heavy personal aftershock: a recent UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) survey of 1,400 households across the country shows that survivors face high levels of discrimination, which deeply affects their ability to rebuild their lives.

Yet the survivors are crucial to the response efforts. Because of their built-in immunity to this strain of the virus, Ebola survivors are in a unique position to contribute to the efforts to end the current outbreak in West Africa, which has already claimed 4,500 lives. In September, WHO issued guidance recommending the use of products derived from the blood and plasma of survivors in the treatment of patients, until experimental drugs become available.

Survivors can also offer emotional support and hope to patients who are struggling between life and death, and could play a critical part by fostering the thousands of children orphaned by the disease. In short, their help is vital.

OCHA's Yasmina Guerda spoke with some of the survivors and health practitioners at a recent two day conference in Kenema, one of the epicentres of the outbreak in Sierra Leone. Their stories are of incredible loss, survival, and the most remarkable kind of inspiration and resilience. 

"Because I love my people, and right now, they need me."

Credit: OCHA/Yasmina Guerda
Josephine Finda Sellu, 42, has been a nurse for 21 years, and is the deputy nurse in charge of the Ebola Case Management Centre, at Kenema Hospital. Other nurses there call her "Mummy."
When I asked her why she's doing what she's doing, she simply told me: "Because I love my people, and right now, they need me."
Back when the epidemic started in May, she recruited 25 nurses. Today, only three remain. Some of the people in that first wave of hires have quit, but most have died. "It's very difficult. I feel terribly guilty when I see the people that I recruited become sick. We watch them die, one after the other, unable to help them as much as we would like to. So I question myself every day, and wonder 'who's next?' But someone has to do it, and I'll keep doing it until it's no longer needed."

Issa has lost 37 of his colleagues to the virus.

Credit: OCHA/Yasmina Guerda
Issa French, 28, and has been caring for Ebola patients in Kenema Hospital since the very first case appeared in the city in May. Since then, he has lost 37 of his colleagues to the virus.
He told me: "As a nurse, I have pledged to serve people, and it's a true honor to be able to do that. Of course, we are scared. Every day. My hardest moment was in July, when we lost our most experienced doctor, Dr. Khan. Soon after, I lost my mentor, Sister Balu. I stayed with her until the end, and she asked me to keep it up, so that's what I'm doing. I was so sad  that I wanted to give up, but I couldn't: there are too many lives at stake." 

"What would my baby do otherwise?"

Credit: OCHA/Yasmina Guerda
Anna Sowa, 19, is a survivor.  Here she is pictured with her 13-month-old son, Ibrahim.
Anna contracted the virus when she was taking care of her sister, Mahawa, a nurse at Kenema Hospital. "I'm very happy to have survived. What would my baby do otherwise? But every day, I think of my sister. She didn't make it."
Mahawa was 23. 

"Before leaving for the hospital, she said 'I will come back.' And she kept her promise"

Credit: OCHA/Yasmina Guerda
Bernadette Jebessaoy, 18, and her mother, Ioye Massaquoy, 47, are the only ones to have survived the virus in their family. 
"There were three of us, but I lost both my brother and my sister. My grandparents died as well. My sister was a nurse at the Kenema hospital, and she was the first victim of the virus in the district. My younger brother, Sylvester, was 15.
The day my mother became sick, before leaving for the hospital, she said 'I will come back.' And she kept her promise. She's all I have left in the world now, and I thank God every day that she's alive," Bernadette told me.

I told her 'no, I have to go, or you will get sick too.' 

Credit: OCHA/Yasmina Guerda
"I am a nurse in the Kenema Hospital. I don't know how I got infected exactly. I can't tell. One morning, I was feeling very sick, and decided to take the test. My mom was devastated, she was saying 'don't go to the hospital, eat some soup, you'll feel better!' And I told her 'no, I have to go, or you will get sick too.' She was crying and crying, but I told her 'I will be back,' and I made it! Thank God I am here today, a survivor of Ebola," Fatima K. Kamara, 30, told me.