Guinean medical student survives Ebola but stigma persists
Health workers hope seeing living proof of Ebola survivors will encourage fearful communities to seek care
The medical school professors no longer want Kadiatou Fanta in the classroom. Her boyfriend has broken up with her. Each day the 26-year-old eats alone and sleeps alone. Even her own family members are afraid to touch her months after she survived Ebola.
Long gone are the days when she was vomiting blood and wracked by fever. And even with a certificate of health declaring her as having recovered, she says it's still as though "Ebola survivor" is burned on her flesh.
"Ebola has ruined my life even though I am cured," she says. "No one wants to spend a minute in my company for fear of being contaminated."
The Ebola virus is only transmitted through direct contact with bodily fluids of the sick, such as blood, saliva, urine, sweat or semen. When the first cases emerged in Guinea back in March, no one had ever confronted such a virulent and gruesome disease in this corner of Africa.
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The current outbreak now has killed more than 1,000 people, according to the latest figures from the World Health Organization. The fatality rate in previous Ebola outbreaks has been up to 90 per cent, though health officials say this time up to half of victims are surviving.
While there is no specific treatment for Ebola, patients can be given supportive care such as intravenous fluids to keep them hydrated. If they can live long enough to develop antibodies to the virus they can survive, though they could still contract other strains of Ebola in the future, medical experts say.
Health workers hope that seeing living proof that people can survive Ebola will encourage fearful communities to get medical care instead of hiding the sick at home where they can infect relatives.
In Sierra Leone, Sulaiman Kemokai, 20, was released from an Ebola treatment centre on Sunday after spending 25 days there. He still feels stiffness in his joints but says he is gaining strength each day.
"When I became sick, I was scared to go to hospital, I hid from my family, from health workers. After four days I couldn't hide anymore, I was too sick. An Ebola ambulance collected me and took me to the hospital," he recalls.
But some within his community are reluctant to have any physical contact with Kemokai. Those released from treatment centres are no longer contagious, though Ebola can still be present in men's semen for up to seven weeks.
Kemokai will have more family support than most: His older brother and sister also have survived Ebola, while the disease took their mother's life.
The reason I am alive today and speaking to you now is because doctors saved me.- Kadiatou Fanta
Fanta, the Guinean medical student, says she was working as an intern at a clinic in Conakry, the capital, when a patient came in from the provinces sick with what doctors initially thought was malaria. She took the man's vital signs — but as is common in Guinea — she had no protective gloves or face mask.
About two weeks later, in mid-March, she started having diarrhea and soon was vomiting blood. She says her lasting troubles began when doctors declared her cured and discharged her from the isolation ward at the hospital in early April.
Although she no longer had the virus in her bloodstream, she still was visibly unwell after nearly three weeks in the hospital. Word of her sickness and return spread quickly in the poor suburb of Tanene where she was staying with extended family.
The boyfriend she was used to seeing every day disappeared when he heard she had Ebola. Now he won't take her calls, even months later.
She tried to re-enrol with her medical school courses at Gamal Abdel Nasser University. In a sign of just how entrenched misconceptions are of Ebola, though, even the instructors did not want her in the classrooms, even though she handed them her certificate of health.
"I still haven't taken my exams while my classmates have moved on to the next level," she laments. "The professors said they were going to grade me by telephone."
Now she's living off what money her parents can scrape together to send her from their village, and still dreaming of when she can resume her courses.
"I want to take care of patients," she says. "The reason I am alive today and speaking to you now is because doctors saved me."