Survivors of Ebola face second 'disease': stigma

April 27, 2014 by Boubacar Diallo
In this file photo taken on Monday, March 31, 2014, UNICEF health workers teach people about the Ebola virus and how to prevent infection, in Conakry, Guinea. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has claimed some hundreds of lives, and is almost always fatal with horrific suffering including bursting blood vessels, there is no vaccine or known effective treatment, but it seems a handful of infected people have survived. However those who survive the horrors of the disease have to cope with being outcast by everybody, such is the fear people have of Ebola. (AP Photo/ Youssouf Bah, File)

The doctor has beaten the odds and survived Ebola, but he still has one more problem: The stigma carried by the deadly disease.

Even though he is completely healthy, people are afraid to come near him or to have anything to do with him.

For example, the man was supposed to give an interview on Guinean radio to describe his triumphant tale. But the station would not allow him into the studio.

"We'd prefer he speak by phone from downstairs," the station's director told a representative of Doctors Without Borders, while the survivor waited outside in a car. "I can't take the risk of letting him enter our studio."

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has claimed more than 145 lives so far. More than 240 people, mostly in Guinea, are suspected of having caught the illness, which causes horrific suffering, including bursting and bleeding from ears and other orifices. There is no vaccine, no treatment and the disease is almost always fatal.

But a handful of the infected do survive. About 30 patients have survived in Guinea so far, according to Doctors Without Borders. Liberia has not recorded any cases of survival.

Unfortunately for the lucky few, the stink of stigma lingers long after the virus has been purged from their bodies.

"Thanks be to God, I am cured. But now I have a new disease: the stigmatization that I am a victim of," said the Guinean doctor, who spoke to The Associated Press but refused to give his name for fear of further problems the publicity would cause him and his family. "This disease (the stigma) is worse than the fever."

Several other people who survived the disease refused to tell their stories when contacted by the AP, either directly or through Doctors Without Borders.

Sam Taylor, the Doctors Without Borders spokesman who had taken the doctor to the radio station, confirmed that the man had been infected and survived.

The doctor believes he caught Ebola while caring for a friend and colleague who died in Conakry, Guinea's capital. At the time, he said, he did not know that his friend had Ebola.

Shortly after his friend's death, the doctor got a headache and came down with an intractable fever. And then the vomiting and diarrhea began.

"I should have died," the doctor said, but he responded to care, which includes intensive hydration, and unlike most other Ebola patients, he lived.

Surviving Ebola is a matter of staying alive long enough to have the chance to develop enough antibodies to fight off the virus, said David Heymann, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

That's because it's typically the symptoms of Ebola—severe fever, hemorrhaging, dehydration, respiratory problems—that kills a patient.

Even though he has been cleared of Ebola, the doctor says that people avoid him.

"Now, everywhere in my neighborhood, all the looks bore into me like I'm the plague," he said. People leave places when he shows up. No one will shake his hand or eat with him. His own brothers are accusing him of putting their family in danger.

Stigma often accompanies the spread of deadly, poorly understood diseases, said Meredith Stakem, a health and nutrition adviser for Catholic Relief Services in West Africa, noting that the terrified reaction to Ebola recalls the early days of the HIV epidemic.

Ebola may incite an even more severe reaction because health workers responding to it wear head-to-toe protective gear that look like space suits, Stakem noted.

In this outbreak, the homes of some of the infected in Liberia have been attacked and Doctors Without Borders briefly abandoned a clinic in Guinea that was targeted.

The families of those who die from Ebola face similar problems.

Aziz Soumah, who lives in a suburb of the Guinean capital of Conakry, said his family was forced to move after his brother died, apparently from Ebola.

"I went to pray at the mosque. As soon as I entered, all the worshippers left the mosque," recounted Soumah, a 30-year-old engineer. "I was alone. No one around me."

International health organizations are doing extensive community outreach to explain how the disease is transmitted—only through direct contact with the bodily fluids of symptomatic people—and to explain that those cured are no longer contagious.

The most powerful tool to combat stigma is the way health care workers treat a discharged patient, said Corinne Benazech, the representative in Guinea for Doctors Without Borders in Guinea.

"The patient never leaves alone," she said of when Ebola survivors leave their isolation wards, and health care workers individually shake hands with the survivor.

Discharged patients receive a certificate from the minister of health that states they are no longer contagious, said Tom Fletcher, an infectious disease physician with the World Health Organization who is working in Guinea. However, the virus may linger in a male patient's semen, so men are given a three-month supply of condoms, he added.

The Guinean doctor was treated for about a week before he was declared cured. Fletcher said that's typical for the miraculous few: "These people should be celebrated, really, as opposed to stigmatized."

Explore further: Guinean Ebola survivor tells of being 'reborn'

Related Stories

Guinean Ebola survivor tells of being 'reborn'

April 11, 2014
A woman struck down by the killer Ebola virus raging in Guinea has told of her joy at being "reborn" after pulling through against the odds.

West Africa's Ebola outbreak has claimed 137 lives

April 18, 2014
The World Health Organization says an Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa has claimed 137 lives.

Morocco steps up guard after Ebola outbreak in Guinea

April 1, 2014
Morocco announced extra health screening measures Tuesday at entry points to the country, in particular at Casablanca airport, after the outbreak of the deadly Ebola epidemic in Guinea.

Saudi halts Guinea, Liberia pilgrim visas over Ebola

April 1, 2014
Saudi Arabia on Tuesday announced the suspension of visas for Muslim pilgrims from Guinea and Liberia, two African countries hit by an outbreak of the deadly Ebola epidemic.

Ebola outbreak in Guinea an 'unprecedented epidemic', MSF says (Update)

March 31, 2014
Aid organisation Doctors Without Borders said Monday an Ebola outbreak suspected of killing at least 78 people in Guinea was an "unprecedented epidemic" that had spread across the west African nation.

Guinea reports Ebola death toll rises to 78

March 31, 2014
Health authorities in Guinea are facing an "unprecedented epidemic" of Ebola, an international aid group warned Monday as the death toll from the disease that causes severe bleeding reached 78.

Recommended for you

Google searches can be used to track dengue in underdeveloped countries

July 20, 2017
An analytical tool that combines Google search data with government-provided clinical data can quickly and accurately track dengue fever in less-developed countries, according to new research published in PLOS Computational ...

MRSA emerged years before methicillin was even discovered

July 19, 2017
Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) emerged long before the introduction of the antibiotic methicillin into clinical practice, according to a study published in the open access journal Genome Biology. It was ...

New test distinguishes Zika from similar viral infections

July 18, 2017
A new test is the best-to-date in differentiating Zika virus infections from infections caused by similar viruses. The antibody-based assay, developed by researchers at UC Berkeley and Humabs BioMed, a private biotechnology ...

'Superbugs' study reveals complex picture of E. coli bloodstream infections

July 18, 2017
The first large-scale genetic study of Escherichia coli (E. coli) cultured from patients with bloodstream infections in England showed that drug resistant 'superbugs' are not always out-competing other strains. Research by ...

Ebola virus can persist in monkeys that survived disease, even after symptoms disappear

July 17, 2017
Ebola virus infection can be detected in rhesus monkeys that survive the disease and no longer show symptoms, according to research published by Army scientists in today's online edition of the journal Nature Microbiology. ...

Mountain gorillas have herpes virus similar to that found in humans

July 13, 2017
Scientists from the University of California, Davis, have detected a herpes virus in wild mountain gorillas that is very similar to the Epstein-Barr virus in humans, according to a study published today in the journal Scientific ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.