Ebola survivors in Liberia are quickly becoming an important part of the fight against the deadly virus that has killed more than 4,500 people in West Africa since being detected in the region in March.
Once rejected by their communities, survivors are now being seen as part of the solution as scientists try to find a way to use the antibodies in their blood to help treat victims.
Sheldon Yett, Country Director for the United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF) in Liberia, said survivors were still stigmatized, but people were starting to see them as a real sign of hope and help.
In the capital Monrovia, Ebola survivors are helping in Liberia’s first state-run interim care center for Ebola orphans. There are some 3,700 Ebola orphans in the region today, according to UNICEF.
“Ebola plays on the most basic of human emotions; children just want a hug, but fear has meant that even loved ones have kept them at arms' length. Ebola survivors can provide that support, knowing that they have a natural immunity to the virus,” Yett told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from Monrovia.
Meinu Kpetermani, a survivor working at the Willing Hearts center, monitors the children's temperature and reports to the caretaker if any child has a fever or shows other symptoms of Ebola.
“Ebola survivors are doctors, nurses and social workers. We come from all walks of life. We can make a real contribution to society if people are willing to use our skills,” said Kpetermani, a nurse who contracted Ebola in September.
The World Health Organization, now largely responsible for coordinating the development of a treatment and vaccine for Ebola, said on Tuesday that a serum based on antibodies in survivors’ blood might be ready as early as December.
“The partnership that is moving the quickest will be in Liberia where we hope that in the coming weeks there will be facilities set up to collect the blood, treat the blood and be able to process it for use,” WHO assistant director general Marie Paule Kieny told a news conference in Geneva.
In the past, Ebola outbreaks occurred mainly in remote parts of Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo and were managed through contact tracing, isolation and rehydration therapy. There is currently no widely available vaccine or treatment.
The West Africa Ebola outbreak is the largest in history and has infected more people than the 25 previous outbreaks over 40 years combined. The WHO has reported more than 9,000 cases, mostly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Kieny warned that supply of a new serum may not meet demand, and that extreme care must be taken to avoid infecting Ebola victims with other diseases such as HIV or hepatitis. Drugs and vaccines may not be ready till January 2015, she said.
EBOLA SURVIVORS TOP 1,000
The medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), which has been leading the fight against Ebola, said this week it had released the 1,000th Ebola survivor treated in its clinics in West Africa, Liberian James Kollie.
Kollie, like many other survivors, now faces a struggle to avoid being rejected in his home town of Hengbelahun, in Lofa County's Kolahun District, just across the border from the original source of the outbreak in Guinea.
“They are afraid of me. They say I still have Ebola and I want to kill them,” Kollie, 16, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by skype from Foya in Liberia, where his father is an outreach worker for MSF.
Kollie’s father, Alexandre Kollie, said many people in their community didn’t believe Ebola existed, including his own wife, who died of Ebola in Monrovia while he was working in Foya.
“Ebola had come to Liberia so I tried to talk to my family about the virus and to educate them, but my wife did not believe in it. I called my wife begging her to leave Monrovia and bring the children north so we could be together here. She did not listen. She denied Ebola.”
James Kollie, who also lost his two sisters to Ebola, said he would like to work with his father, telling people how to avoid the disease. “It’s important that you wash your hands with chlorinated water and avoid body contact to keep Ebola out of your community.”