When Kono identified its first Ebola case just miles from our clinic, Wellbody Alliance deployed community health workers to the homes of people who had been in contact with the patient. They sat in their homes, empathized with the frightening position they were in, but stressed the importance of getting tested immediately and agreeing to quarantine, because patients are only contagious when they’re symptomatic, and early diagnosis and treatment tends to result in better health outcomes. All 36 contacts voluntarily agreed to visit the hospital for testing before they showed any symptoms.
Still, in the past few weeks, only 10 to 15 patients are coming to our clinic each day when we usually serve 75 or more. They’re too afraid of catching the disease and too afraid of what might happen if they are suspected of having it.
As I prepared to board my flight out of Sierra Leone a few weeks ago, it occurred to me that if I happened, for whatever reason, to get a fever on the airplane, I would be met at the gate by a team of Belgian health authorities in space-suits who would whisk me off to a hospital I've never been to before, without my family nearby, and possibly isolate me for the next 21 days. If I were to get Ebola, I would likely die alone without ever seeing my friends and family again. I knew there was almost no way I could have Ebola—but the worry never left the back of my mind. Like the hundreds of patients sick right now in their homes in Kailahun, like the angry family members protesting outside of Kenema hospital’s isolation unit, like the scores of Ebola victims alone in treatment centers and field hospitals in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, I understood how hard it would be to accept the truth—not because of ignorance, not because of culture, but because of pure, deeply human fear.