Ebola outbreak instills terror in West African families
JOHANNESBURG — Even the word was chilling: Ebola. The virus stole into the girl’s house in her small eastern Guinea town, invisible as death, and swiftly killed her grandmother and great-aunt. There were dark rumors everywhere that Ebola was witchcraft.
Soon her mother and aunt fell sick too. Health workers with Doctors Without Borders came and talked to the family for a long time. Then they donned yellow heavy plastic suits, white plastic aprons, masks and bibs and took 12-year-old Rose and her mother and aunt away in an ambulance.
And everybody knew that when they took you away, you never came back.
This is a time of terror in many West African communities as they face the world’s worst outbreak of one of the deadliest known diseases, easily spread through bodily fluids and difficult and dangerous to treat. Rose’s story, recounted by her nurse, exemplifies the fear — and sometimes bravery — that comes with the epidemic.
In the Doctors Without Borders isolation ward, things got worse for Rose’s family. Her mother, feeling depressed and hopeless, gave up, waiting for death. Her aunt was also sure she was going to die.
“No, you’re not,” Rose insisted.
But they were right to be afraid. Only about 40 percent of those sickened in the outbreak have survived; in past outbreaks, the mortality rate has been as high as 90 percent.
Since this outbreak began in Guinea in February, nearly 730 people have died there and in neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone, the World Health Organization said Thursday. The risks for health workers are high and several senior doctors have died, including Sierra Leone’s top Ebola doctor, Sheik Umar Khan.
For some international health workers, the hardest thing isn’t wearing the suffocating plastic suits in the humid West African heat. Nor is it the
impossible-to-answer questions from terrified people as they watch loved ones being taken away, perhaps forever.
It is the children in their cribs in the isolation units. Toys are placed in the beds with them, and the cribs are placed near windows, so people outside the unit can wave.
“The people inside the treatment center are completely alone. We can’t be there with them for hours on end. We have to go in and out,” said Monia Sayah, a Doctors Without Borders nurse who recently returned home to the United States after treating patients and counseling families for 11 weeks in Guinea. She worked on an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2012.
Sayah said she was especially moved by the children. There was Rose, the 12-year-old who refused to give up. There were babies whom she sadly watched die. She saw no child younger than 4 survive Ebola.
Michael Stulman of Catholic Relief Services, currently in Sierra Leone, said the outbreak was likely to worsen before it improved.
“We definitely haven’t seen the worst of it. The treatment centers are at full capacity and as soon as a new treatment center is set up it’s almost immediately full,” he said.
“This is a scary virus and it can kill you, and the majority of people with it are dying. As soon as someone from the World Health Organization shows up and says your family member or friend has tested positive and we need to monitor you, people get scared and they hide.”
One of Sayah’s roles was to visit the homes of suspected victims and take people with her to treatment facilities. She encountered suspicion, mistrust and even hostility. Yet some people understand that the doctors are there to help.
One village family had lost seven members before Sayah met with them. When she arrived at their house, she donned protective gear and carefully entered. She saw a sick woman, about 40 years old.
“You look at them and you talk to them and you can see if they are not going to make it,” Sayah said. She recommended that the woman be taken for treatment, but she died the next day.
When Rose’s mother and aunt were at their lowest points in the Doctors Without Borders isolation ward, the girl was at her most determinedly cheerful. She knew all the staff and patients by name. She chirped and chattered.
“She was very brave, very mature,” Sayah said. “She was taking care of her mother, who was very sick. She was very strong and very dynamic.”
When her mother or aunt lost hope, she kept coaxing them. She told them to keep drinking water.
“They were very depressed and thought they were going to die,” Sayah said. But they recovered and eventually went home. Rose, still infectious, had to stay on in an isolation facility. So she appointed herself an unofficial medical assistant, hovering around helpfully, telling Sayah if she missed something.
Rose was one of the lucky ones. She recovered and went home. But afterward, she came back every day to the place where she had nearly died.
“She and her aunt came back every day to the facility to see us,” Sayah said. “They just needed to come back.”