Ebola survivors still struggling to live
by Julie Borg
Posted 8/14/15, 08:58 am
The West African Ebola outbreak that began in 2014 has afflicted about 27,000 people so far and has claimed the lives of more than 11,000 of its victims. The disease is ebbing, but for survivors, the battle is far from over.
As the number of new Ebola cases dwindles, healthcare centers in West Africa are transitioning to survivor clinics to assist the people who beat the odds but now have to live with the aftermath.
Nearly half of Ebola survivors are plagued with what doctors have dubbed post-Ebola syndrome, a lingering condition of declining health with a multitude of symptoms. The most common health issues are body aches, weakness, joint pain, general fatigue, hearing loss, rash, and an inflammation of the eye—uveitis—that can lead to blindness if not treated promptly.
When Ian Crozier, an American physician who contracted Ebola last year while working in West Africa, developed uveitis, the infected eye turned from blue to bright green. Far more alarming, his doctors discovered live Ebola virus swarming in the fluid inside his eye, the New York Times reported. Doctors have since discovered that Ebola can lurk in various reservoirs within the body, such as semen and the synovial fluid in joints.
Despite often debilitating symptoms, it can be difficult for survivors to obtain the ongoing medical help they need.
“There is a great deal of fear in the healthcare system. As soon as the healthcare workers know a patient is an Ebola survivor, they are afraid to touch them,” said Carrie Jo Cain, a World Hope International health programs coordinator who led the development of a survivor clinic that opened in Sierra Leone in May.
Even when medical care is available, survivors often have difficulty accessing it.
“A clinic may be just 20 miles away, but without transportation it could just as well be 200 miles,” Cain said. To help alleviate transportation problems, the survivor clinic Cain developed also has a mobile unit that takes services into surrounding communities.
But survivor needs go beyond medical treatment. Many survivors deal with depression, anxiety, and grief. A survivor mourning the loss of five family members may not know how to continue farming when half the people who worked the fields are now dead, Cain explained.
“Often a survivor’s entire support system was wiped out, and there is no one to help because everyone in the community is going through the same thing,” she said.
People within the community care for many of the orphaned children but often lack adequate resources. It’s difficult to integrate 200 orphans into a community that has lost so many people and when most of the adults are out working in the fields, Cain said.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies provides survivor kits containing mattresses, clothes, food, money, personal hygiene items, and household goods to families that take in Ebola orphans. The World Food Program provides 30-day food packages to Ebola victims after they are discharged from the hospital and also provides two monthly cash distributions. UNICEF provides money and supports a drive by the Liberian government to register more than 70,000 infants whose births were not recorded during the Ebola crisis. Without proper records, these children might be unable to access health and social services or obtain identity documents, leaving them vulnerable to being trafficked or illegally adopted.
But survivors still have a great need for education and support services. The follow-up treatment often includes a complex regimen of medications and eye drops that can be confusing.
“They think if one pill is good, 10 are better, and they will take the entire prescription at once to get better quicker,” Cain said.
Some of the symptoms survivors experience may actually be a result of treatment attempts. For instance, healthcare workers discovered many of the survivors who developed rashes were bathing in a concentrated solution of a common household cleanser that was intended to be diluted and was never meant to be used as a body wash.
Despite their hardships, the West African people are resilient, Cain said.
They praise God that He saved their lives, but, they will need help for years to come.
“This is a long-term project because of the huge number of losses and the impact on entire communities,” she said.
Julie is a clinical psychologist and writer who lives in Dayton, Ohio. She reports on science and intelligent design for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Digital.