As medical experts work to control the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, survivors and their families say they are being stigmatized. While some people are welcomed back into their communities after they recover, many are shunned due to fear of contagion. Health workers say education is key.
Family and friends gathered in Lofa County, Liberia, last week to welcome home 48-year-old Joseph Taylor, who was falsely suspected of being infected with the Ebola virus. Taylor's wife died earlier this month after contracting the disease from her sister.
"People wanted to stone me, but I said I will fight this and I will make it. So today, I am happy that I am among you again. You can be around me. You are my friends. I forgive everybody," said Taylor.
Liberia's Ministry of Health presented Taylor and his family with a medical certificate at a community ceremony, confirming that he is Ebola-free so he will not be shunned by the community.
There have been at least 34 suspected cases of Ebola in Liberia. More than 135 people have died in neighboring Guinea, where the virus first broke out in February.
Liberia's chief medical officer, Dr. Bernice Dahn, said discrimination of Ebola survivors has been a serious challenge. "What happened to him [Mr. Taylor] has happened to many others, in other communities. Today we can know, we can all know, that people who come in contact with infected people can actually be safe. They can live in the community again and go about their normal duty," she said.
The World Health Organization said while Ebola is one of the most contagious viral infections, it is actually quite difficult to catch. The virus can only be transmitted through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person who is exhibiting symptoms.
But many people, such as Mariam Camara, a market vendor in Conakry, said they are reluctant to associate with anyone who has been or may be infected.
She said, "At first they told us it was not a curable disease. Then, after some time, we also learned that there are people who are cured of it. But me personally, when there are people that are cured, I am still scared." She said, "It truly frightens me. A sickness that kills people indiscriminately, without a cure - that is not reassuring in my opinion. So I am frightened."
Earlier this month, a hospital in Conakry, where three people died from Ebola, was forced to shut down because people were too afraid to enter the building.
Guinea's Ministry of Health has stopped naming the neighborhoods where suspected cases occur, due to ongoing fear and stigmatization.
Timothy La Rose is a spokesperson for the United Nations Children's Fund, which has been working on educating communities about the reality of Ebola. He spoke to VOA from Conakry.
"One of the first steps UNICEF took in the response to Ebola was to get the correct information out directly to the people, especially in the affected areas. So we have been daily visiting mosques, churches, schools ... going door to door, going on the radio, distributing leaflets and information, so that people understand Ebola, and they understand how it transfers and how it spreads, and how it does not," he said.
La Rose said that in addition to community sensitization programs, UNICEF has been giving soap and chlorine to households and health facilities in the affected areas in order to protect people and to help break the transmission chain of the virus.
Health workers in both Guinea and Liberia say they are encouraging people to welcome survivors of Ebola back into their communities and to offer them their support.
Prince Collins contributed to this report from Monrovia.