A Mixed Welcome for Homecoming Ebola Survivors

Esmee de Jong/MSF

Moses’s family has been hard hit by Ebola. Four of them were infected with the virus—his father and brother died, but Moses and his sister both survived. Moses was recently discharged from the Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Ebola management center in Bo, Sierra Leone, and made the journey back to his home village, accompanied by MSF health promoter Esmee de Jong.

“We have just started accompanying patients back home,” says Esmee. “Recovered patients sometimes have great difficulty being accepted back into their communities. It is very important that we go with them to explain to people that they are not dangerous. We also want to show people that you can survive Ebola, because this is not widely known.”

Sometimes even people involved in the Ebola response are surprised to discover that recovery from the disease is possible. 

“We left early in the morning,” says Esmee, “and on our way to the small village where Moses lives, we bumped into an alert team, [which follows] up suspected cases of Ebola. We stopped to have a chat with the team, and they asked what we were doing so far from the treatment center. When we told them we were taking a recovered patient home, they couldn’t believe it. One of them looked into the car and recognized Moses: ‘I brought him to you, he is alive!’ They were so happy to see him, and were flabbergasted that someone could recover from Ebola.” 

Moses is a teacher, an important man in his community, and when he arrived home, the whole village turned out to welcome him. “When we came to the village, it was a party,” says Esmee. ”All the women surrounded him, and Moses really had to calm them down. I was so struck by the love and total acceptance that they showed—this is really rare.”

Two days later, Moses’s sister was declared cured, and Esmee also accompanied her home. “Everyone was singing and dancing—we could hardly could get out of the car. It was a beautiful moment,” says Esmee.

But Ebola survivors do not always receive such a warm welcome. ”Unfortunately it is not always like this,” says Esmee. “Recently we took home Francis, another patient who had recovered from Ebola. In his village, people were very reluctant to receive him back into the community. He and his brother were accused of witchcraft.”

“What struck me was the fear and denial of the disease,” says Esmee. “It seemed that denial was their way of protecting themselves.”

Read About the Stigma Faced by Ebola Health Workers

Esmee and the health promotion team explained to the villagers that Francis was no longer infectious. “By talking and showing the community that we can touch him, I hope that we made it a bit easier for him to be accepted back,” she says. “Francis was certainly very happy that we went with him, and thanked us many times.”

Talking to villagers also provides the team with the opportunity to educate people about Ebola; about how to protect themselves from the disease and what to do should they fall ill. Survivors themselves play an important role in encouraging people with Ebola symptoms to seek treatment early and give themselves the best chance of making a full recovery, which also helps prevent them from infecting others.  

“We want to show people that survivors are not dangerous, and give people hope by showing that it is possible to survive Ebola,” says Esmee.

Patients’ names have been changed.

An Ebola survivor returns home. In the bag is a mosquito net, multivitamins, a bottle of water, condoms, sheets, soap, a toothbrush, toothpaste, a towel, a blanket, biscuits and ready-to-use therapeutic food to help build up their strength.
Esmee de Jong/MSF