[Ip-health] Katy Athersuch: When will we be free of this Ebola

Thiru Balasubramaniam thiru at keionline.org
Sun Oct 26 01:50:18 PDT 2014




When will we be free of this Ebola

22 October 2014

‘When will we be free of this Ebola?’ It’s a question I’m hearing more and
more. People are tired. They’re tired of the fear, of the loss, of the
interruptions, and yes, they’re getting a bit tired of seeing us, too.
‘Every day we see the ambulance passing on the way to the cemetery. It is
not nice. When will this thing end?’

I had decided to go home early after dinner. I was feeling a bit subdued
and wanted to have an early night. The three night watch guards from the
guest house where I’m staying greeted me at the gate, ‘How are you Katy?
You are back early this evening. You had a good day?’ We chatted and I made
them laugh attempting to pronounce the few phrases I’ve learnt in Kissi-
‘Ebola oucho beg bek: Ebola is real.’

They laugh and clap. ‘Very good, very good.’ We continued chatting then
after a while one of the guards turned to me looking very serious and asked
that question, ‘Will it be over soon? When will we be free from this virus?’

I grimaced, not sure how to answer the question. Ebola cases in this part
of the country have declined to a much lower level in the last month or so.
We’ve gone from a peak of 120 patients in the Ebola care centre, to only
having around 10 for the past four or so weeks. In fact, we haven’t had any
confirmed cases in three of the districts of Lofa County for over 21 days-
except one patient that had arrived from Monrovia and was admitted before
he started to show symptoms. Things are getting better here.

But how long this lull will last is a different question. Patient numbers
in the centres just over the border from here in both Sierra Leone and
Guinea are very high - reaching capacity even. The outbreak in Monrovia is
still out of control and people of course move back and forth. If there’s
one thing we know about this epidemic, it is that it is unpredictable -
we’ve seen cases decline in one area only to spike again later. So we are
quite far from proclaiming any sort of victory. The truth, for the people
of Foya, is that they cannot be free of Ebola until West Africa is free of
it. And that seems a very long way off.

I attempted to answer the guard, ‘Things are much better here because
people are being very careful about protecting themselves from the virus.
This is very important, but unfortunately we cannot relax, otherwise we
will see people getting sick again. Ebola hasn’t gone away. There are still
lots of cases nearby’.

The idea that we can’t see the end in sight is something I can’t really get
my head around. I’ve been angry about living in a world where health is
secondary to wealth considerations for a long time, but I’m lost for words
on this one. I’m in the numb place that’s just beyond anger, where things
feel too unfair and the suffering too great for me to feel anything but
numb. There’s nothing to say.

We have no vaccine to offer, no means of protection for these people that
could allow them to safely resume normal life. We can only tell people to
keep a distance from one another, not to go in crowded places. For now the
markets and schools have been shut down and the borders are officially

These are emergency measures, but people have been living in this emergency
for six months already, and they cannot live like this forever. Already the
Women’s Association here is petitioning for the market to reopen. Foya is
normally home to a major market for the region, and people are suffering
without the trade. Of course it will have to open, but tackling this
outbreak is only going to get harder when it does. People need to trade and
to travel for work so they can support themselves and their families, and
children need to go back to school. If we had a vaccine we could prepare
for this far better, but we don’t and we can’t.

This last point has been brought home to me by a remarkable young man this
week - MSF’s 1000th survivor. He’s a 16-year old-boy named Kollie James
with big dreams and a heavy weight on his shoulders. He may be a survivor,
but Ebola has taken his mother, step father, younger brother and sister,
uncle and aunt all in the past month.

‘I was good in school, and my teachers loved me,’ he tells me. ‘I love
biology because it is the science of life. I want to be like the famous
geneticist who discovered how traits are passed from parents to their
children. I want to study abroad and eventually become a doctor.’

*Kollie James Photo: Katy Athersuch/MSF*

He looks hopeful talking to me about his ambitions. ‘If I can do this it
will be a good life for me, and a good life for the family I will one day
create.’ Reality strikes him and he starts to look worried again. ‘But I
don’t know where I will go to school? I cannot go back in Monrovia.
Everyone has died. There is no one to take care of me there. If I go back,
I won’t have anyone to support me or to pay my school fees and I will not
reach my dreams. Ebola has destroyed everything. Everything has been

He looks down and starts fiddling with the pen in front of him. He tells me
about faith, that he had faith that he would survive Ebola and that he has
faith that he will one day study biology abroad.

My faith in the resilience of the human spirit is restored, but not my
faith in our world. The world outside of West Africa has become obsessed
with Ebola in the last week. Not because it’s claimed the lives of 4,500
people already, but because of a few cases in America and Europe.  Maybe
this will help to garner the necessary resources to finally get a grip on
this outbreak and to develop and test the vaccines and treatments we need
to overcome this disease? It shouldn’t have had to come to this. We should
have those tools in our hands already, but we don’t.

For now, the schools remain shut and the ambulances keep passing.  People
here are still living in an emergency and the end is not yet in sight.

Katy wrote this post on 18th October 2014 from Foya, Liberia. For more
information on MSF's work tackling the West African Ebola outbreak please
visit msf.org.uk/ebola

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