Shots - Health News
2:51 am
Fri April 11, 2014

The Ebola Survivors: Reborn But Not Always Embraced

Originally published on Fri April 11, 2014 2:32 pm

They call them the "Lazarus" cases, after the Biblical character who died but was revived by Jesus. They are survivors of the latest outbreak of Ebola.

Ebola often grabs global headlines as the killer virus that can result in a death rate of up to 90 percent. But in Guinea, the death rate in the current outbreak has been about 60 percent. So there are survivors — to the delight of the overworked doctors, health workers and, of course, the patients who have recovered.

"I feel reborn," says a vivacious young woman who chose not to give her name because of the stigma associated with the virus. She had tested positive for Ebola and was admitted to the isolation unit in the treatment center run by Doctors Without Borders, a cluster of tents located on the grounds of the main public hospital in Conakry, the capital city.

Her face wreathed in a smile, she tells how she went in with a raging fever and other telltale Ebola symptoms: "When I was admitted everyone was saying there's no cure, there's no vaccine, and I was frightened. That alone could kill you."

A week later, she was discharged. "I'm out — I've totally recovered, and I thank God and the doctors for helping me," she says.

She is one of a handful of patients cleared to go home.

The first person to recover from Ebola and be discharged from the hospital in Conakry is a 30-year-old doctor, who also wants to remain anonymous. He was diagnosed after he began feeling unwell and went for a blood test and checkup.

Other medical professionals call this slight and reserved man a hero, for helping other Ebola patients in isolation. The recovery of the physician and others has given extra motivation to the medical staff, says Henry Gray, emergency coordinator in Guinea for Doctors Without Borders.

"Seeing some of our patients actually survive and walk out under their own steam, it's brilliant," says Gray. "For the patients themselves, they sometimes feel as though they're fighting against all odds, and when they do come through it, there's joy in what is often a sad and difficult place to work."

But with survival can come stigma, he warns.

"The community must understand that the survivor does not pose a threat," he says. The education falls to the medical team assembled by Doctors Without Borders, which includes local medics and others from the World Health Organization, the local Red Cross and the International Committee of the Red Cross. They all are in close contact with the Ministry of Health as well as political, religious and traditional leaders. "But that is a work in progress," Gray admits. "In Guinea, Ebola is an unknown disease; they're not used to it."

The community may think a person is still contagious, says the anonymous doctor who has recovered from the disease. With that fear may come rejection, marginalization and isolation.

He was pained to see how close friends shunned his wife and wouldn't eat the food she cooked — or buy the ginger juice she sells. But her physician husband says he understands people's misgivings.

Like the majority of Guineans, he and his wife are Muslims. "My wife is very religious," says the doctor, and Islam is a religion of forgiveness in his household. "She has forgiven them," he notes of the nervous acquaintances and neighbors. And now, day by day, the friends are coming back to their house to visit.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

Any outbreak of Ebola grabs global headlines because the killer virus has such high mortality rates. But in the current outbreak in Africa, the nation of Guinea is recording a number of survivors.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton introduces us to one.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: This vivacious young woman chose not to give her name because of the stigma associated with being tested positive for Ebola. She was admitted to the isolation unit here in Guinea's capital city. It's run by the medical charity Doctors Without Borders, working in a cluster of tents within the grounds of the main public hospital in Conakry.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Her face wreathed in a smile, she says she went in with a raging fever and other telltale Ebola symptoms. But I've survived, she says, I feel reborn. When I was admitted everyone was saying there's no cure for the virus, there's no vaccine and I was frightened. That knowledge alone could kill you. But a week later, she says, I'm out, I've recovered, I've totally recovered and I thank God and the doctors for helping me.

In the past, the Zaire strain of Ebola has killed up to 90 percent of sufferers. With this outbreak in Guinea, more people are surviving. And she is one of the patients cleared to go home.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: This 30-year-old physician, who also wants to remain anonymous, was the first patient to recover from Ebola at the treatment centre in Conakry and the first to be discharged. They're calling the survivors the Lazarus cases, after the Biblical character Jesus restored to life. The doctor tells me the medical and nursing professionals who looked after him, and supported him, call him a hero. They tell NPR he was busy helping other Ebola patients in isolation.

His and others' recovery has given staff extra motivation, says Henry Gray, emergency coordinator in Guinea for Doctors Without Borders.

HENRY GRAY: Moral is great. And a boost like seeing some of our patients actually survive and walk out under their own steam, it's just - it's brilliant. For the patients themselves, they sometimes feel as though they're fighting against all odds. And when they do come through it, there's just this joy in what is often quite a sad and difficult place to work.

QUIST-ARCTON: But there's the other side of the coin. Survival, yes, but sometimes stigma, warns Gray.

GRAY: Absolutely, reintegrating patients back into their communities is extremely important. We work extremely closely with our Ministry of Health counterparts, with local authorities, local leaders, the religious leaders to explain to them that once somebody has survived, they have survived - they pose no threat to the local community. But that is a work in progress, especially when, as we are in Guinea, this is an unknown disease, Ebola, they don't know about it. They're not used to it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: You may be better, says the unnamed physician who's recovered from Ebola, but your community may still believe you're contagious. And with that fear may come rejection, marginalization and isolation.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: He describes the pain he felt, especially for his wife, when her close friends - neighbors - shunned her and avoided the food she cooked and ginger juice she sells locally within the community. But the recovered physician says he understands people's misgivings and their reaction.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: My wife is very religious, says the doctor. In majority Muslim Guinea, he says, Islam is considered a religion of forgiveness. She has forgiven them. We have forgiven them, he says. And, day by day, those friends are coming back to the house to visit.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Conakry. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.