In Sierra Leone, a Battle Against Ebola’s Stigma

OICC staff/volunteers in Sierra Leone.

Interim Care Center volunteers from Sierra Leone share their stories from the Ebola outbreak, which claimed many lives.

This week, the World Health Organization declared that for the first time in a year, Sierra Leone had no confirmed, active cases of the Ebola virus. If none are reported between now and Oct. 5, 42 days after the last case, the country will be considered free of Ebola. 

By Karifa Kamara, ChildFund Sierra Leone

At the peak of the 2014 Ebola outbreak, ChildFund started Interim Care Centers throughout Sierra Leone to help children who found themselves at risk, living in households where they had been exposed to the virus. Often, they had lost parents to the disease and did not have reliable care or protection. Ultimately, ChildFund set up seven centers nationwide and served 343 children.

We checked in recently with some of the children and volunteer workers at the centers to see how they were doing.

Mariatu, who was at an Interim Care Center in Sierra Leone, received food and other necessities after going home.

Mariatu, who was at an Interim Care Center, received food and other necessities after going home.

Of the 343 children served between July 2014 and this past July, 75 percent are orphaned, 15 percent have one parent, and 10 percent were reunited with both parents. In recent months, 330 children have been reunited with parents or other family members.

ChildFund’s assistance, supported by donors to the Ebola emergency response fund, didn’t end there. We provided clothes and bedding to children whose belongings had to be burned to avoid spreading the virus.

We’ve also provided Cash Grant Livelihood Support packages of $300 each to 120 families, who used the funds for school uniforms, books and writing materials, or for household expenses. Staff members at ChildFund Sierra Leone’s national office also continue to visit children who have been reunited with their parents or caregivers, giving them further financial and emotional support as they cope with the trauma of losing loved ones to Ebola. We expect to stay in contact with these families well into the future.

Children were not the only people who suffered in the outbreak.

About 90 percent of the volunteer staffers at interim care centers are Ebola survivors who initially suffered some form of stigmatization from relatives or the general public. Due to ignorance of the disease, people were scared to come near Ebola survivors, despite the fact that they were no longer contagious or even vulnerable to catching the disease a second time. Survivors lost their jobs and homes as a result, and many have shared their sad stories with ChildFund staff members.

ChildFund Regional Director Jumbe Sebunya signs a guest book at an Interim Care Center in Sierra Leone.

ChildFund Regional Director Jumbe Sebunya signs a guest book at an Interim Care Center in Sierra Leone.

Even children who survived Ebola or were merely under observation for symptoms were not welcome in relatives’ homes after leaving the interim care centers. It took many appeals and negotiations for some of these children to be accepted in their communities.

According to an Ebola survivor, Theresa, whose two sons also fell sick and recovered, “When I was discharged from the clinic, I used to feel very ashamed. My neighbors’ attitude made things worse for me. I could not even use the apartment building’s toilet without fearing that someone would attack or abuse me.” Ultimately, the family left their apartment and now live elsewhere.

But people in Sierra Leone are becoming more aware of the truth about Ebola through an anti-stigmatization publicity campaign led by the federal government and assisted by ChildFund. Also, community members in areas with interim care centers have seen with their own eyes how Ebola survivors have helped many children.

“When the ICCs were established, survivors were still being stigmatized,” says Ebola survivor and center volunteer Mohamed Swarray, who helped track down exposed children’s family members so they could be reunited. “Since the centers were dealing with children from quarantined homes, it was difficult for them to get nurses and caregivers. It was decided that it is us — the survivors — who can do the job well. So, that is how my status as a survivor actually gave me a job.”

Community members started to view survivors differently and appreciate their work. Many of the volunteers, who received stipends for their work, say they’re grateful for ChildFund’s support and are proud of working with children affected by Ebola. Today, they stand by, ready to work if they’re needed again.

Read more about the aftermath of the Ebola outbreak, including how youth spread awareness throughout West Africa and a Guinea man’s survival story.

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