Defying stigma, survivors join the Ebola fight in West Africa

Mon Oct 27, 2014 3:33pm EDT
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By Michelle Nichols and James Harding Giahyue

CONAKRY/LIBERIA (Reuters) - High school teacher Fanta Oulen Camara spent two weeks in March fighting for her life against the deadly Ebola virus but her darkest days came after she was cured of the disease and returned to her home in Guinea. 

"Most of my friends stopped visiting. They didn't speak to me. They avoided me," the 24-year-old said. "I wasn't allowed to teach anymore."

The worst outbreak of Ebola on record has killed 5,000 people in West Africa, mostly in Guinea and neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone. But thousands more have survived, ostracized by fearful communities ravaged by the disease.

In the face of such stigmatization, Ebola survivors like Camara are joining an association in Guinea that assists the growing number of people who recover and seeks ways for them to help combat the disease.

Survivors are believed to have immunity from Ebola thanks to antibodies in their blood, making them a powerful weapon in a fight against the virus. A shortage of healthcare workers means weak West African governments are losing the battle to contain Ebola, despite pledges of hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid.

The virus is spread by the bodily fluids of victims, who bleed, vomit and suffer diarrhea in its final stages. Ordinary medical and sanitary staff must wear heavy Personal Protective Equipment to prevent infection, denying scared patients the chance for human contact -- but survivors do not have to.

Camara, who lost six members of her family to Ebola, works with medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres at a clinic in Guinea's dilapidated ocean-front capital Conakry. 

"We share our own experience with those people, explaining that we were sick but now we have been cured," Camara said. "We give them hope."   Continued...

At the Grand Mosque, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, meets with Ebola survivors Fanta Oulen Camara, 24, (L) and Dr Oulare Bakary, 30 (C) in Conakry, Guinea October 26, 2014. REUTERS/Michelle Nichols