The Stigma That Comes With Fighting Ebola

Adolphus Mawolo/MSF

Before joining the Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Ebola emergency mission in Liberia in August 2014, Liberian physician's assistant Jackson K.P. Naimah worked as a vaccine officer in Liberia’s Ministry of Health and Social Welfare. Here, he tells his story.

My wife and I live a lonely life. Our neighbors have barred their children from playing with our children—our home is a "no-go zone" for them. Some of them have gone as far as suspending speech with me and my wife.

We’ve been isolated because we are both health workers. I work as a physician’s assistant at MSF’s ELWA 3 Ebola Management Center in Paynesville, and my wife works at the John F. Kennedy Hospital as a midwife. People accused us of being carriers of the disease. If we fall victim, will they rejoice and be happy we’re dead and gone?

I lost my niece and my cousin to Ebola in July last year. But that did not discourage me from volunteering for Médecins Sans Frontières to combat the virus in Liberia over the past five months. I felt the urge as a trained physician's assistant to save the vulnerable lives that have been struck. The task has not been easy. In this battle, one must always keep on the safe side or risk joining the victims.

Read About the Stigma Faced by Ebola Patients

We’re not fighting Ebola blindly. We’re fighting it with our conscious minds. Safety on the frontline depends on your carefulness and straight adherence to protocols. Mistakes are not permissible here. You constantly have to remind yourself of the things you ought to do in order to not get infected through touching an infected person or object.

My family understands what I’m doing and supports me. Still, some of our neighbors and friends do not get this. They ostracize us. It sometimes makes me wonder whether I am working for or against society.

Every day spent at the Ebola management center has been heartrending. One moment a patient survives and you celebrate and then in a split second, you see another patient who you talked to a couple of hours ago wrapped in a body bag.

You finish your day emotionally devastated and psychologically traumatized. And when you return home hoping to have some gentle conversations with your neighbors and relax your mind with friends, they give you the cold shoulder instead. This feels like an unfair punishment. The people who we work for don’t appreciate us. I am actually looking forward to the day [when] some of the patients I cared for will thank me for helping to save their lives. 

A few colleagues have left their job because of stigma. But I take this as a challenge. We cannot abandon the treatment centers. There’ll be no one to care for patients if we do. It’s our responsibility. We have hope, we are proud, and, above all, we will remain very careful.

Liberian physician's assistant Jackson K.P. Naimah
Adolphus Mawolo/MSF