An Ebola survival miracle

Ebola is a brutal disease. But thanks to around-the-clock care, this boy beat it.

By Sam Waterton
Democratic Republic of the Congo. A man holds a child.
20 January 2020

BUTEMBO, Democratic Republic of the Congo – Doctors didn’t think Nelly would make it when he was first admitted to the Ebola treatment centre in Butembo, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, back in September.

Six-year-old Nelly was displaying advanced symptoms of Ebola after contracting the disease, along with two of his brothers, in August. Less than a month later, his life was hanging by a thread.

When doctors first started his treatment, Nelly was flickering in and out of consciousness, his breathing laboured, his eyes ringed with dark circles.

He was comforted and cared for at the centre by Germain Mbusa, who would sit with Nelly inside a transparent, protective plastic bubble. Germain knows what it’s like to beat Ebola. Having survived the disease, Germain is now immune, and works at the centre as a ‘lullaby’, so called because of their soothing presence. He was able to safely stay at Nelly’s side, talking with him and holding his hand, supported by a team of doctors and nutritionists providing lifesaving medical care.

Democratic Republic of Congo. A caregiver at the Ebola Treatment Centre of Butembo sits with a child affected by the virus in North Kivu Province.
FILE PHOTO: Germain, who works as a ‘lullaby’ at the Ebola treatment centre in Butembo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, sits with Nelly, who is receiving treatment after contracting Ebola.

“I wanted to see him recover as soon as possible,” Germain says.

The symptoms of Ebola vary, but sudden onset fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headache and throat irritation are common in the early stages of the disease. This can be followed by vomiting and diarrhoea, a rash, and in some cases, internal and external bleeding.

Democratic Republic of the Congo. Students put up a poster detailing Ebola sensitization at a school in Butembo.
Students put up posters detailing Ebola sensitization at a school in Butembo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“When Nelly arrived, there was no hope,” says Dr. Serge Mumbere Kavalami, a medical director at the hospital.

But then something unexpected happened: Nelly started to get better.

“With all the help from the staff…he somehow made it! Nelly’s survival is a miracle,” Dr. Kavalami says.

UNICEF has deployed clinical nutritionists, pediatricians and psychologists to work in Ebola treatment centres to meet the specific needs of people infected with Ebola, particularly children, pregnant women and lactating mothers, many of whom are already malnourished.

After 35 days in intensive care, Nelly left the treatment centre with his family as an Ebola survivor. “I’m happy that I am healed, and I’d like to go to school,” Nelly says smiling as he shyly clasps his hands together outside the hospital gates.

From one survivor to another

After weeks of worry, the mood is light and celebratory. The family and medical staff are dancing, laughing and playing drums. Nelly is breathless with excitement as his family kiss and embrace him. “I used to get worried when I visited...I cried every day. I’m so grateful he’s better,” Nelly’s mother says as she swings her son onto her back.

Survival stories like Nelly’s are further evidence that the dedicated efforts of UNICEF-supported doctors, nurses and nutritionists are helping save lives. More than 1,100 people have survived the latest outbreak, which began in North Kivu in August 2018. But even as survival rates improve, prevention remains key. Since 2018, almost 33 million have been reached with information on how to spot and prevent Ebola through outreach activities and initiatives in town halls, churches, schools and radio shows. 

Germain says he never gave up on Nelly. “I was so happy when Nelly survived,” he says. “I was scared when he refused to eat. I would look at him and I was terrified that he would die. But he made it.”


UNICEF’s Ebola response focuses on a cross-cutting community-based approach. This includes engaging with communities; providing safe water and improving sanitation and hygiene as part of infection prevention and control; boosting psychosocial support, education and child protection services; and providing assistance with nutrition. Read more about Ebola and UNICEF's response here.