Ebola outbreak: Liberian survivors struggle for acceptance

Ebola survivor Sontay Massaley, 37, after she was released from the Doctors Without Borders (MSF), treatment centre in Paynesville, Liberia on 12 October 2014 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Ebola survivor Sontay Massaley was released from a Liberian treatment centre on 12 October

In Liberia, testing positive for Ebola can be a death sentence. Those that survive the disease feel fortunate, even blessed. But in the eyes of many Liberians, Ebola survivors still carry the infection and must be shunned.

Isolated during their fight with Ebola, many survivors emerge to find themselves isolated once again.

On Monday Dr Walter T Gwenigale, Liberia's minister of health and social welfare, urged Liberians to stop stigmatising Ebola survivors. The minister told people to welcome survivors, who could educate them about the disease and how it is treated.

For Korlia Bonarwolo, an Ebola survivor, the minister's words cannot come quickly enough.

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Image caption Korlia Bonarwolo survived Ebola but has faced discrimination from some in his community

In June, while working as a physician's assistant at Liberia's Redemption Hospital, he came into contact with an infected nurse whom he was caring for, not realising that her fever was a symptom something far worse.

For 21 days he battled with Ebola. "I was very sad, I was very depressed," he says. "I was traumatised having this kind of condition." Initially believing he would die, Mr Bonarwolo says his narrow escape is owed to "the grace of God".

Once cured, he returned home but a hero's welcome was not forthcoming.

"There were some people who had doubts about me being free of this condition," Mr Bonarwolo explains.

Though he tried to tell them he was immune from the disease, people weren't convinced. Even the local barber would not cut his hair. "He said: 'You're sick with the virus and I have to take precautions.'"

Perhaps he was lucky. Some survivors have had much worse treatment.

Separate spoons

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Image caption Many fear that Ebola, a highly contagious virus, can be caught from survivors

On Sunday night, Mr Bonarwolo says a crowd attacked an Ebola survivor in the New Matadi community in Liberia's capital, Monrovia. The man, he explains, caught the disease whilst working at the John F Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Liberia.

Investigations are under way but the survivor claims he was thrown to the ground by the crowd and hurt his arm. His attackers apparently thought he was lying about being cured of Ebola.

Though the man's experience was extreme, the hostility he faced has been felt to varying extents by other survivors.

Many say they have been shunned by members of their communities - sometimes even by their own families - who refuse to believe they can be free of a disease that has killed so many.

Julius Browe, a friend of Mr Bonarwolo's, also survived Ebola. Whilst working as a healthcare provider at a Liberian clinic, he was infected by an Ebola patient.

"After I was discharged from the Ebola treatment unit, I came to my community," Mr Browe says. "They do not understand and they think that I am sick." Despite showing them the certificate all Ebola survivors are issued, some people continued to ignore him.

At home, his parents make him eat with separate utensils and use separate dishes. "I think sometimes my family set me aside," he says. "It makes me feel sad."

Denied a ride

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Image caption Ebola survivor Abrahim Quota lost both his parents to the virus - it is hoped relatives will adopt him

According to Mr Bonarwolo, such stigmatisation happens on a daily basis. "If a survivor gets into a vehicle... the driver does not want to carry them along and some of the passengers want to get down."

Mr Bonarwolo knows of cases, he adds, where someone contracted Ebola and "a survivor was accused of causing the sickness".

A simple misunderstanding, he thinks, is to blame.

When an Ebola survivor is discharged from a treatment centre they are told to avoid sexual intercourse for up to three months and pregnant women are asked, if possible, to avoid breast-feeding.

It is good advice, but Mr Bonarwolo says "people are misinterpreting those messages". Rumours are spreading that all bodily fluids of Ebola survivors carry the disease regardless of when they recovered.

Faced with these falsehoods and the scorn of those who believe them, survivors could be forgiven some anger. This is not the case with Mr Bonarwolo.

Once he got better, he set up an Ebola survivors' group. He visits local clinics and, if they have discharged any new survivors, he asks for their contact details and invites them to join. Currently, the group has over 100 members.

In their shoes

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Image caption Medical teams treating those with the virus are being helped by some of the survivors

Their aim is to educate people about Ebola, both how to prevent it and how it is managed.

Some members of the survivors' group care for children, both those who have Ebola and those who have lost parents to the virus. Others have given their blood to Ebola patients, though this is far from a large-scale operation.

The survivors also share their experiences with healthcare workers. "We tell them the areas they need to improve on and suggest how they should treat patients with the virus," Mr Bonarwolo says.

At the Elwa treatment centre run by Medecins Sans Frontieres in Liberia, seven of the staff are Ebola survivors, uniquely able to offer sufferers some much needed human comfort and closeness.

To these patients, the survivors are a symbol of hope that they too could survive the disease. But the homes of some Liberians who have lost loved ones to the virus are not yet ready to accept the cured.

Mr Browe understands. "I feel bad when people ignore me," he says. "But I just have to accept it."

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