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Stigma increases burden for Ebola survivors

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone -- Survivors of Ebola face stigma, suspicion and possible side effects as they work back from the ravages of the devastating disease racing through West Africa.

"Many of our neighbors won't come to our house now," said Fudia Sesay, 49, of Sierra Leone, who was released from a treatment center last month. "My friends don't visit, thinking that if they come near our house, they'll catch the virus." The few who do talk to her, she said, are "in denial," believing Ebola doesn't exist.

Sesay was infected when she shared her niece's meal, using her spoon. The relative, a nurse who didn't know she was infected, later died. The two are among 783 people infected in Sierra Leone, which recorded 334 deaths as of Aug. 11 since the outbreak began in January, the World Health Organization said.

While more than 40 percent of people infected in West Africa have survived, their return to normalcy, physically and mentally, will often be a long journey.

Sesay has been home since July 21, but said she hasn't yet tried to reclaim her catering job at a restaurant in town. "I don't even know what the reaction of my boss would be if I show up to start work," she said.

There are other concerns as well. While only a few researchers have studied survivors from past outbreaks, their findings suggest that side effects ranging from lingering joint pain to eye swelling can continue for years.

Sesay said she has experienced knee pain. Other survivors she knows have also been complaining of pain, she said.

At the same time, another survivor, Sulaiman Kanneh Saidu, a health worker in Koindu, Sierra Leone, said he has only experienced some dizziness, which stopped after two weeks.

Saidu, 47, who is the supervisor of the Ebola Management Center in Koindu, said he caught the virus because fear of Ebola led patients to lie about where they had been and who they had been in contact with.

He was asked to examine a sick woman, and was told she had never left Sierra Leone and had not attended any burials, "which was false news," he said. Soon after, he was infected.

For 11 nights, Saidu was isolated in a treatment center, praying and focusing on keeping his stress levels low. He was discharged on July 15, given protein-rich nuts, multivitamins and condoms, and warned that the virus could linger for as long as three months in his sperm.

Along with possible physical ailments, survivors also face psychological aftereffects, according to Laurie Garrett, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

After the 1995 outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, survivors were psychologically traumatized years later, said Garrett, who covered the outbreak as a reporter for Newsday, and returned three years later to visit survivors.

"Many had seen their own families and loved ones turn against them" when they caught the virus, "and they have never recovered from that sense of betrayal," she said in a telephone interview.

While Sesay's neighbors are keeping their distance, she said she is happy because her family accepts her.

Doctors Without Borders helped Saidu with his homecoming. The local authorities were told that he was going to be discharged, and spread the word that he was free of the virus.

Saidu is back to work and is using his experience to educate his community, spreading the word that even though there is no cure, one can survive.

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