Using their immunity, Ebola survivors play special role in Congo outbreak

Dozens of survivors are providing care — and much-needed human contact — to some of the littlest victims of the second-worst Ebola epidemic on record.

Survivors can spend entire days exposed to patients, without having to wear protective gear

Because she survived Ebola, Mwamini Kahindo can wear very little protective gear as she cares for babies confirmed to have the virus in at a treatment centre in Butembo, Democratic Republic of Congo. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

Wearing a disposable gown and gloves for protection, Jeanine Masika cradles a two-year-old Ebola patient and offers the listless toddler teaspoons of brown soup.

Most health-care workers need a surgical mask, goggles, hooded coveralls, an apron, rubber boots and two pairs of gloves to avoid catching the virus that typically kills around half those it infects.

The outfits are hot, and in the stifling tropical temperatures of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, this limits the time they can spend with patients fighting for their lives in isolation units.

But Masika has antibodies in her system after she won her own battle against Ebola last year, and she now has immunity.

The 33-year-old mother of six can spend entire days with patients at a treatment centre in the North Kivu town of Beni, offering a comforting presence among a crowd of faceless figures with names written on their suits with markers.

Medical staff and an Ebola survivor, who doesn't need to wear the same protective gear, treat Ebola patient Ibrahim Mupalalo inside the Biosecure Emergency Care Unit at an Ebola treatment centre in Beni, Congo. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

Masika is one of dozens of survivors who are providing care — and much-needed human contact — to some of the littlest victims of the second-worst Ebola epidemic on record.

Of the more than 1,260 confirmed and probable Ebola cases in the current outbreak, 28 per cent are children, according to figures from the World Health Organization. More than 800 people, including at least 248 under the age of 18, have died since the outbreak began in August.

The outbreak is surpassed only by one in West Africa in 2013-16, which is believed to have killed more than 11,000 people.

Fighting back

Masika lost 10 relatives to the virus; four of those infected in her family survived.

"It was as if Ebola had chosen my family," she said.

She was admitted to the same treatment centre where she now works last September and stayed there for 21 days, battling horrific symptoms.

"It's like suffering from all the diseases of Congo at the same time," she said. "I felt bad all over my body: headache, stomach ache, diarrhea, vomiting, tiredness."

Masika's experience inspired her to join the fight against Ebola, comforting sick and frightened children who have to be isolated from their families and familiar surroundings to avoid infecting others. She is one of at least 23 former patients employed at the center in Beni, which is run by the Alliance for International Medical Action (ALIMA).

When Reuters visited in late March, Masika was spending most of her time in a clear plastic isolation cube. She rocked and fanned Furaha, a little girl who rarely stirred or cried. The cubes allow patients to see relatives during treatment, albeit through thick plastic walls.

A health worker measures the temperature of a man entering an Ebola treatment centre in Beni, Congo, earlier this month. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

When the needle attached to Furaha's intravenous drip had to be replaced, Masika gently lifted the girl and carried her to the back of the cube so a medic in full protective gear could find a new vein. Furaha slipped a skinny arm around Masika's neck and leaned her head against the woman for support.

"My goal is to make her happy," Masika said of her small charge, the youngest of five family members who were being treated at the centre. "I treat the child like she's my own, so she's at ease even while she's away from her parents."

Children especially at risk

Children are especially vulnerable to the virus because their bodies are less able to cope with the extreme fluid loss caused by diarrhea, vomiting, fever and bleeding, doctors say.

More than two out of every three children sickened in this outbreak have died, according to WHO figures. Others were orphaned or left on their own when their parents went into treatment.

Claudine Kitsa, 40, had to place a child in care while she was being treated for Ebola in the nearby trading hub of Butembo. She now does shifts at a childcare facility operated by the United Nations children's agency UNICEF, taking turns with other survivors to sleep next to the babies' cots on mosquito-netted beds.

On a recent morning, she strolled around a yard of hard-packed earth, rocking seven-month-old Christvie in her arms. Baby clothes were hung up to dry on the fence of the single-story compound, which had been freshly decorated in cartoon murals.

Christvie's mother had recently died of Ebola, and staff were closely monitoring the baby to see if she would fall sick.

For Kitsa, volunteering at the centre is a "way of keeping love alive," at a time when Ebola is robbing families of the ability to care for their loved ones.

Healthcare workers say people like her play an invaluable role.

"We can't be caring for children all of the time, because you can only wear PPE [personal protective equipment] for one hour at a time. And it would scare… children," said Trish Newport, the Ebola representative for the humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières in Congo's eastern city of Goma.

"So to have survivors who can wear light protection and be with the children and bond with them, it's huge for us."

With files from Djaffar Al Katanty and Kate Kelland of Reuters