The Persistent Ebola Threat

Ebola is over, but it is not really over! That is the crux of preliminary findings of a study done with 82 Ebola survivors in Liberia. The Ebola outbreak did not only diminish an already weak healthcare system but also left significant long-term health challenges among survivors. According to the study, large numbers of Ebola survivors had developed weakness, memory loss, and depressive symptoms in the six months after being discharged from an Ebola treatment unit. The average age of the 82 Liberian survivors in the study is 35.
In addition, other patients were “actively suicidal” or still having hallucinations. About two-thirds had body weakness, while regular headaches, depressive symptoms, and memory loss were found in half of the patients. Two of the patients had been actively suicidal at the time of the assessment. Furthermore, other symptoms, including eye problems, indicate damage to the brain, which may not heal.
Dr. Lauren Bowen, from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, said: “It was pretty striking, this is a young population of patients, and we wouldn’t expect to have seen these sorts of problems. When people had memory loss, it tended to affect their daily living, with some feeling they couldn’t return to school or normal jobs, some had terrible sleeping problems. Ebola hasn’t gone away for these people.”
Infection with Ebola ravages the body. Some of the symptoms could improve with time as the body heals; others may be due to social trauma as many survivors are ostracized from their families and communities.
Prof Jimmy Whitworth, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “The findings show high levels of mental and neurological problems in the survivors and from the clinical neurological findings these appear to be very real problems.”
At the same time, data presented previously at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections, raised concerns about sexual transmission of the virus in survivors. It indicated 38% of men had tested positive for Ebola in their semen on at least one occasion in the year after recovering. And in the most extreme case, Ebola had been detected 18 months later. Yet most survivors reported being sexually active, with only four in every 100 using a condom.
Clearly, there is much to be done immediately and in the future. This cannot be a burden shouldered by the government alone. Our national resources are limited, but our priorities are many. We must assume a whole-of-society posture to fully tackle and mitigate the risk of post-Ebola health challenges. The government has taken the lead in developing a policy framework for program and services for survivors. Now, all of the society must contribute in terms of program implementation.
Individuals and families need to start where they are, work with whatever they have and do what they can. Do what you can in your neighborhood. Do what you can in your village, town, or county.
Houses of faith must join this common national effort. Churches and mosques have tremendous resources to bear on this problem. Their encouragement, prayers, comfort, and guidance can help assuage the apprehension and sense of defeat common among survivors. Do what you can in you church or mosque.
Businesses also have a role to play; they can make financial contributions to community-based organizations providing services to Ebola survivors.
Civil society also has a role to play in this effort. Youth groups, women’s groups, traditional elders, and all of the civil society must stand squarely with our brethren who have survived Ebola. Our collective voice must preach a message of acceptance and inclusion.
Together, we can guarantee a healthy future for all Liberians.

For a healthy Liberia,
Peter Paye

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