At a glance: Sierra Leone

In Sierra Leone, Ebola survivors begin to find acceptance

By Issa Davies

A young mother and daughter, survivors of Ebola, demonstrate that surviving – and defeating – the deadly virus is in many ways a community effort.

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone, 23 February 2015 – Yeabu Kalokoh, 18, is beaming with smiles as she holds her baby girl, Grace, and gently caresses her. The young mother and her nearly 2-year-old daughter share the terrible ordeal and the good fortune of escaping the deadly grip of the Ebola virus.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Sierra Leone/2015/Davies
Yeabu Kalokoh, 18, carries her daughter, Grace (in red), as they mingle with the rest of the family at their home compound in Makeni town, Bombali district, Sierra Leone.

They have joined more than 400 Ebola survivors in Sierra Leone’s Bombali District to share their experiences and to discuss issues of stigma and discrimination. This latest conference for survivors, organized by the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs, with support from UNICEF, and held in the district capital Makeni, is a chance for Yeabu to meet other survivors and get encouragement to continue her recovery.

Restarting lives

Ebola has killed more than 3,000 people in Sierra Leone, but almost 3,000 people have also been infected and survived. Although survival is a great triumph, the victory can be bittersweet, as many survivors face difficulties restarting their lives in their home communities.

Fortunately, Yeabu and her baby have run into little discrimination since their discharge – on the contrary, they have been warmly received by their relatives and the whole community in a small but boisterous Makeni neighbourhood.

“As soon as we saw her coming with her baby, we were taken aback!” says an excited Pa Alimamy Kalokoh, Yeabu’s father: “The whole community rushed to welcome them with songs of praise and dance.”

There are 48 people living in the compound, Pa Kalokoh says, and radios are placed in strategic positions in the evenings so that everybody can hear the Ebola messages that are being broadcast.

“This is unusual, but we are being persuaded every day by persistent appeals on the radio and social mobilizers who move from house-to-house telling us that survivors pose no harm to their communities and that everybody must willingly welcome them back,” Pa Kalokoh says. 

Changing attitudes

UNICEF co-leads the social mobilization effort that is part of the national response to Ebola. Radio has proved to be one of the most effective ways of reaching communities, and messages are broadcast on 62 radio stations. The messages are also backed up with one-on-one outreach.

“Especially in the early days of the Ebola outbreak, survivors were being driven away from their communities, but this is now seldom the case, as we keep disseminating persistent messages to communities for them to embrace survivors,” says Ibrahim Vibbi, a social mobilization volunteer in Makeni. “We usually go from house-to-house, especially in the villages, educating communities on the need for them to show love and acceptance to survivors.”

A third Knowledge, Attitude and Practice (KAP) survey, conducted last December by Focus 1000 with support from UNICEF, reveals that stigma and discriminatory attitudes towards survivors have sharply decreased. Only eight per cent of people responding said they would not welcome survivors back in their communities – in contrast with 75 per cent in the first survey, conducted in July 2014.

Accepted

The change in community knowledge and the increasingly positive attitude towards survivors have had a clear impact.

When he realized that his daughter had developed a high fever and started vomiting, Yeabu’s father and some neighbours called 117, the emergency Ebola hotline. Previously, it was common for families and communities to hide their sick and tend to them on their own – the perfect opportunity for the disease to spread.

“Out of 48 people in my compound, only three people were infected: my wife, who unfortunately succumbed to the disease, my daughter and granddaughter,” says Pa Kalokoh. “Apart from that, all of us are safe from the disease, because we followed the messages from the radio and the social mobilizers.”

Everyone in the compound underwent the 21-day quarantine, to ensure no one else had contracted the virus.

“We were confident, but still apprehensive, that none of us would develop any symptoms of the disease,” Pa Kalokoh says.

Joining some other members of her household to launder clothes, Yeabu expresses her happiness at returning home. “I feel so good that my family and community warmly accepted me back into the fold.”


 

 

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