Ebola survivor returns home with a stigma

‘When I fell sick, everybody abandoned me’ says 26-year-old mother in Sierra Leone

Dattu Lahai, an Ebola survivor, prays inside her small house in Daru after returning from a Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)  treatment centre, Sierra Leone. Photograph: Samuel Aranda/The New York Times

Dattu Lahai, an Ebola survivor, prays inside her small house in Daru after returning from a Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) treatment centre, Sierra Leone. Photograph: Samuel Aranda/The New York Times

Tue, Aug 19, 2014, 14:35

The neighbours lined up, smiling and mouthing soft congratulations when the van pulled in bearing Jattu Lahai and her 2-year-old daughter.

No one moved to embrace them. Nobody stepped out of the line of 30-odd people as Lahai, an Ebola survivor, walked to the room she shares with her husband. A conspicuous space formed around the smooth-faced 26-year-old woman and her baby, also a survivor, as she sat on a bench.

“When I fell sick, everybody abandoned me,” said Lahai, in her darkened room for the first time since the ambulance had whisked her away two weeks ago on a trip most do not return from. Crying softly, she wiped her tears with the hem of her dress and spoke a quiet prayer. “I didn’t think I was going to come home again,” she said, cradling her daughter, Rosalie.

Here in the Ebola zone, the world is divided in three: the living, the dead, and those caught somewhere in between. For those lucky enough to survive, coming home is another struggle entirely.

Lahai’s homecoming experience - muted and cool - has been shared by many of the survivors of the Ebola epidemic spreading across West Africa. Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) says only 61 of the 337 Ebola patients treated at its tent-camp treatment centre in nearby Kailahun have survived. When they go home, some are greeted warmly, with hugs and dancing. But others, like Lahai, feel a chill of wariness, or worse. In some places, health workers said, the neighbours flee.

“How long does the virus live?” a young man asked the health workers who brought Lahai home.

“What will kill it?” another demanded amid a flurry of anxious questions. “How can you cure?” asked yet another.

The worries are hardly confined to Sierra Leone, the country with the highest number of Ebola cases, 810. Some in the United States objected to the decision to take two infected US aid workers to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta for treatment, fearful the disease would be spread further.

In some other places, any association with one of the affected countries, however remote, is enough to set off suspicion and ostracism.

For the last 10 years, MacQueen Farley has been living in a refugee camp in Ghana, a country untouched by the epidemic so far, where she makes a living by braiding hair for about $3 a person.

But because she is originally from Liberia, she has had to deal with people’s fears, and has found it hard to find customers or even a bus ride to town since the outbreak in her home country.

“So we find it difficult to eat,” she said. “They say, ‘The whole camp is covered with Ebola.’” She added: “Sometime, when I go to the market, when I go to buy food stuff, even when I’m trying to give the seller the money, they use plastic to receive the money from us. Yeah. They put plastic on their hands to collect the money from our hand.”

Some of the other refugees living in the camp, who fled Liberia years ago during times of war, have said that they are now reluctant to go to the hospital for fear that they would be summarily quarantined as Ebola patients.

International health experts have warned that the epidemic in the affected countries - Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria - is probably much worse than the official estimate of 2,127 infections and 1,145 deaths. Local health officials say they are expecting a surge in cases as the effort to root out hidden patients, many of whom fear that a trip to the hospital is a death sentence, intensifies.

“Community members are going house to house,” said Mohamed Vandi, the government’s district health officer in the nearby regional capital, Kenema. “That’s why we will see a surge.” Many more deaths are now being reported to officials, he said, though few turn out to be Ebola-related. “Everybody is scared,” Mr Vandi said.

Roughly a quarter of Sierra Leone has been cordoned off by the government, enforced by roadblocks manned by soldiers and the police who demand official authorization to pass.

Lahai said she stayed at home sick for three days, with severe diarrhoea, before being taken to the hastily setup isolation ward in the town of Daru. She said she had caught the disease from her husband, Lahai Kallon (32) a teacher who became infected attending a funeral in a neighbouring village. “The body was emptying,” she said of her intense illness.

Then the medical workers in suits came to take her to the Doctors Without Borders treatment centre in Kailahun. “The day I left, it felt like being in the war. I was very, very afraid,” she said.

“I was thinking I was going to lose my life. It’s only thanks to MSF,” she said, using the initials of the French name of the organization. Her husband had survived as well, but the day Lahai came back to the world of the living, would she still be viewed as part of the Ebola universe, where at least half die, or would she return to being one of the neighbours in the low communal bungalow at the edge of this market town? The answer seemed unclear, for now, in the minds of many who turned out.

No one ran away. At least 10 others have returned to Daru, said Ella Watson-Stryker, one of the Doctors Without Borders workers who helped bring Lahai back.

But Lahai sat alone on the bench holding her baby, next to her husband. He did not embrace her. Her older sister came, but she did not touch her either. Instead, she smiled and said she was most glad to see Lahai again.

Around them, questions about Ebola poured down on the two health workers, who exhorted the neighbours and relatives not to be fearful. The presence of the workers, in their white vests, helped to ease the re-entry, lending the young woman’s recovery some credibility in the eyes of her neighbours.

“As long as you people escort them, we have no fear,” said Sakpa Sawi, a pastor, sitting at a table 10 feet away. “We were not expecting they would recover,” said Mohammed Kpande Yenge, a teacher, looking over at the couple.

“The sickness is a sickness that has no corrective measure. Not too many people survive. So, we are happy.”

Lahai, a soft-spoken woman with a shy smile and a light in her eyes, knew she was an exceedingly lucky case: a survivor with a family to come home to. In some households in this part of the country, entire families have been wiped out. In others, young children have been made orphans.

Sometimes, the family breadwinner is killed off, leaving little but uncertainty for those who remain. In the city of Kenema, one young man weighed the relief of surviving against the grief of a life without the more than a dozen relatives he had lost.

Lahai went into her room, sat on the edge of her bed in front of a jumble of possessions - toys, pots and pans, clothing - clasped her hands and bent her head. “Now I have come back, and I can start life again,” she said quietly. “Now, yes, I can go back to normal life. I am free.”

New York Times