Saidu Kanneh was given a hero's welcome last week when he walked into a community meeting about Ebola in a tiny village of mud huts in the Kissi Kama region of Sierra Leone. Kanneh was diagnosed with Ebola early in July, was treated for 12 days in a Doctors Without Borders hospital and overcame the disease.
"God has made me as an example to survive and then get into the community to talk to my people," says Kanneh, who's about 40 years old and runs a health clinic near the border with Guinea and Liberia. In treating Ebola cases, he too caught the disease — he thinks he may have been infected from contact with the bodily fluids that transmit the disease, perhaps because of a gap between his rubber gloves and his shirt sleeve.
Kanneh's message is that not every patient dies.
And there are signs of hope: changes taking place that could be key to stopping the West African outbreak that began in March and has so far seen 1,032 cases in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, with more than 600 deaths.
"There is no cure but that does not mean we can't treat it with success," says Tim Jagatic, a Canadian physician at the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kailahun where Kanneh was treated — a series of tents set up in a field.
He says the human body can figure out how to combat it: "This is just a virus. It's a virus like influenza. When we have influenza we know we stay home, take our fluids and let our bodies do the rest. That's the same thing that we are doing here.
"Our job is eliminating distractions for the immune system so it can create the anitbodies [that] cure the patient. So they can walk out."
Treating patients is one element of the response to this outbreak; the other huge challenge is stopping transmission of the virus through contact with vomit, blood, sweat and mucus.
Funerals were initially a major source of transmission. "Relatives sometimes fall, cry on the dead body, wash the body," says Temba Morris, who runs a government health clinic in a remote village of roughly 3,000 people near the epicenter of the Sierra Leone outbreak.
Funerals in Sierra Leone, Morris says, are a very physical expression of mourning. But when someone dies of Ebola, the level of virus in the body is at its peak. The corpse is incredibly contagious.
People have been told not to touch the body of anyone who may have died of Ebola. Changing that custom, Morris says, is very hard. "Especially when a strong relative dies, like a mother, father, a child. Everybody wants to touch, everybody wants to fall on the dead. And maybe roll over it. To maybe express their love for the particular person. So it is yet difficult to accept that one."
Nonetheless, he says, Sierra Leoneans are now accepting that they must stay away from the corpse of an Ebola victim. That change in behavior could go a long way to bringing this outbreak to an end.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has reached three national capitals in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. There have been nearly 1,000 cases and more than 600 deaths recorded. The World Health Organization says it's unclear when the outbreak will be brought under control but some changes may lay the foundations for stopping Ebola. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from Sierra Leone.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: It's important to remember that this is the first Ebola outbreak ever in West Africa. So when entire families started dying, people were terrified. The early messages from the government were that Ebola was a horrible disease, it jumps from person to person, there is no cure and if you get infected, there's a 90 percent chance it will kill you. But here it's not killing 9 out of every 10 people who get it.
BEAUBIEN: Saidu Kanneh was given a hero's welcome last week when he walked into a community meeting about Ebola in a tiny village of mud huts in the Kissi Kama region of Sierra Leone. He got Ebola early in July but through early treatment managed to overcome it. Kanneh ran a local health clinic near the border with Guinea and Liberia where the first Ebola cases were detected. In treating some of those cases, he too fell ill. After 12 days in a Doctors Without Borders Ebola hospital, Kanneh had completely recovered.
SAIDU KANNEH: I have been free and don't fear.
BEAUBIEN: Kanneh's now going back to his old job to spread the word about preventing Ebola, but also to let people know that survival is possible.
KANNEH: So it's a very good opportunity for God having made me as an example to surviving and get into the community to talk to my people.
UNIDENTIFIED DOCTOR 1: Weak and vomiting.
UNIDENTIFIED DOCTOR 2: Yes, he really needs an IV.
BEAUBIEN: At the Doctors Without Borders Ebola hospital where Kanneh was treated, the medical staff are reviewing the charts from the 31 patients currently inside the isolation zone.
UNIDENTIFIED DOCTOR 3: He cannot walk.
BEAUBIEN: This Ebola hospital is run entirely in a series of tents set up in a field. Nearly every day patients are passing away here. The makeshift graveyard outside the fence is overflowing. But on the day Kanneh was released, four other Ebola survivors walked out with him.
TIM JAGATIC: There is no cure but that doesn't mean that we can't still treat it with success.
BEAUBIEN: Tim Jagatic, a Canadian physician with the Doctors Without Borders hospital, says people assume because there's no cure for Ebola, there's no hope. But he says the human body can figure out how to combat it.
JAGATIC: This is just a virus, a virus like influenza. And when we have influenza, we know that we stay home, we relax, we make sure we take our fluids and let our body take care of the rest - that's exactly what we're doing over here. Our job is to kind of eliminate all the distractions from the immune system so that it can get to work, create the anti-bodies and cure the patient so they can walk out.
BEAUBIEN: Treating patients is one element to the response to this outbreak - stopping transmission of the virus is the other huge challenge. Ebola is spread through contact with bodily fluids. It could be vomit or blood - it also could be sweat or mucus. Funerals here initially were major source of Ebola transmission.
TEMBA MORRIS: The custom was when someone dies, the relative sometimes fall, cry on the dead body, they wash the body.
BEAUBIEN: Temba Morris runs a government health clinic in a remote village of roughly 3,000 people near the epicenter of the Sierra Leone outbreak. Funerals in Sierra Leone, Morris says, are a very physical expression of mourning. Unfortunately, when someone dies of Ebola, the level of virus in them is at its peak and the corpse is incredibly contagious. People have been told not to touch the body of anyone who may have died of Ebola. But changing that custom, Morris says, is very hard.
MORRIS: Especially when a strong relative dies like a mother, a father, a child. You know, everybody wants to touch, everybody wants to maybe fall on this, the dead and maybe roll over it to maybe express their love that they had for the particular person. So it is - yeah, it's difficult for them to accept that one.
BEAUBIEN: But despite that difficulty, he says people are accepting that they must stay away from corpses of Ebola victims. And this could go a long way to getting this outbreak under control. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Kailahun, Sierra Leone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.