After passing through hell, very few people are capable of returning to the scene of their anguish. Fewer still are capable of dedicating their professional lives to helping others through such pain.
Yet this is exactly what a growing movement of people are doing in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country currently enduring the second-worst outbreak of Ebola in history.
Only 25% of the 2,200 people in the Central African country who have officially contracted the virus in the country have been cured. But most of these survivors — people who have endured what one survivor told Reuters was like suffering from “all the diseases of Congo at the same time” — have developed a superpower: they’ve become immune to the disease.
Many have flocked to healthcare centres, in defiance of the threats of later medical complications or semi-regular attacks from militia groups, consoling children with the condition while other forms of human contact are prohibited. They’ve become a human face amidst a sea of faceless, protective gear-clad individuals who by necessity make up the vast majority of medical teams.
They’re the people operating informal ambulance networks, helping those with the condition go to medical facilities; and the people travelling around the country to tackle falsehoods about how the disease is transmitted, treated and overcome.
One such person is 33-year-old Jeanine Masika, whose story is related by Reuters. She is able to spend entire days in a treatment centre in Beni, supporting and consoling adults, while medical professionals in layers and layers of protective clothing cannot spend more than an hour at a time. Masika is now a part of a team of at least 23 former patients employed by the Alliance for International Medical Action, a team which is also undoing stigma attached to survivors, who people think may still be contagious.
Then there’s Mulyanza Huguette, a graduate in early years education who joined UNICEF as a workshop leader to educate communities in affected provinces about how the fever spreads, how early treatment can work, and how waiting for treatment can be fatal.
The National Geographic details how the 24-year-old picked up the disease after consoling people who had handled the contagious bodies of loved ones at funerals. She said she felt secure, given her Ebola had been diagnosed early, but recognised that many people in the country don’t trust foreign doctors taking relatives away for care and quarantining them. Her work is helping people regain the confidence to receive medical treatment and to do so without enough time for the measures to be effective.
And then Nature magazine relays the story of Doctor Maurice Kakule Matsunga, who contracted Ebola before the country’s viral outbreak was announced while tending to a patient who later died of the disease.
He now works to share his story, encouraging others to make use of the healthcare infrastructure and challenging preconceptions that it’s safer to stay at home than go to a medical facility. He set up a chapter of the National Association of Ebola Survivors, which has built up almost 500 members and works as an informal ambulance service — using motorcycles to get people to hospitals without exposing them to the potential stigma generated by getting in an ambulance.
Sadly, these local heroes are not free from danger. DRC is notorious for the prevalence of militia groups, with around 50 estimated to be operating in the country and regularly attacking clinics. Earlier this year, the facility which had coaxed Huguette back to health had been attacked, leading to the death of a police officer trying to defend those inside. Similarly, WHO epidemiologist Richard Valery Mouzoko was shot and killed in an attack at Butembo University Hospital this April.
Yet their work remains vital. The spectre of the 2016 epidemic, which claimed the lives of 11,000 people across multiple countries in West Africa, looms large. Ebola continues to rage across the continent — cases have repeatedly been reported across the border in neighbouring Uganda.
Michael Acton Smith