Our former CEO, Justin Forsyth, visited Sierra Leone last week to visit Save the Children teams and see first hand the continuing fight against Ebola. Here he shares his experiences of meeting Ebola survivors and the human cost of the disease. In part two of his blog he writes about the wider implications of the epidemic on the country.
Even though the statistics are shocking it is not until you sit down with a family who have felt the full force of Ebola that you really understand the devastating human toll and long term consequences of this disease.
I met 15-year-old Joshua, a survivor and his mother Gbassy in a small health clinic a few hours drive from the capital Freetown.
Joshua had been discharged from Save the Children’s treatment centre on New Year’s Day with his 10-year-old brother.
His mother had also survived at another treatment centre but his four-month sister, one-year and four-year old brothers all died.
So did his father and 15 other members of his extended family. Like so many children here, Joshua is still in shock and traumatised by his experience.
Blocking out the pain
Although I saw glimpses of a smile and learnt of his passion for football, for the most part he barely spoke.
His head hung low, he looked at the ground unable to make eye contact. He can’t remember his time in the treatment centre.
He has blocked out all the pain.
His mother explained how they were surviving on the Save the Children discharge package of food supplies and though the neighbours were very supportive she feared for the future.
How would she feed her surviving children? How could she afford health care? Joshua had hurt his arm and had come to the Tombo clinic.
The cost of Ebola is not just lives lost but the challenges now facing survivors and the wider community.
A few days earlier I’d met another remarkable survivor, Daniel, aged 18. He had been discharged from Kerry Town on 21 November last year.
He lost his mother, elder brother, one sister and 19 other family members.
He described the immense physical pain of Ebola as like “having an axe in your head”, how frightening being in a treatment centre was, thinking you were going to die; how his sister Cecilia gave up the will to live after their brother died right next to them; how he pleaded with her to fight on and beat Ebola.
How he gave her hope. He recovered before her but he stayed in the centre to look after her and they left together.
Daniel wants to be a doctor and is now working with his sister at Kerry Town to support children in a specialist ward.
Turning a corner
The good news is the number of infections in Sierra Leone is coming down. In the last few days there have only been around 10 cases a day – less than 100 cases last week in the whole of West Africa.
But whilst the Ebola crisis is not over and the biggest risk now is complacency, it does feel like the battle is at last being won.
It has not been a fight without terrible casualties. The impact of the epidemic is enormous – on children like Joshua and Daniel and their families – but also much more widely.