Ebola survivor turns to help his community recover in Guinea

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*West Africa is currently facing the largest and most complex Ebola epidemic on record. The virus has taken a heavy toll on life: more than 25 000 people have been infected and over 10 400 have died (WHO, April 2015). Beyond the human tragedy, the disease is having devastating effects on the security and economy of the whole region. 'Papus' has survived Ebola and now devotes himself to the fight against it.

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Sâa Yawo Koumassadouno, Alima

Towards the end of 2014, the life of 26-year-old Sâa Yawo Koumassadouno, also known as 'Papus', was turned upside down not once, but twice.

It all started on 9 October 2014 at the Ebola treatment centre in the town of Guéckédou in the Guinée Forestière region of Guinea. Two days after being admitted to the centre (run by Médecins Sans Frontières and financed by the EU), Papus was informed that he had tested positive for Ebola, the dreadful haemorrhagic fever devastating the country.

Having just recently buried his father, a former surgeon who had died of a disease with similar symptoms to Ebola, Papus took the news philosophically: "I knew that if you suspected you might have Ebola, coming to the treatment centre quickly would increase your chance of survival. And that’s what I did, of my own accord, so I was very confident".

The staff of the centre took meticulous care of Papus and all the other patients. He ate well, drank water regularly, took his medicine as he was supposed to and had regular visits from his family and loved ones, which did much to cheer him up. After making an astonishingly quick recovery, Papus set about helping the centre. He didn’t hesitate to share his tent with other patients in order to take better care of them.

On 20 October, Papus’ life took yet another turn. Just 13 days after being admitted to the centre in Guéckédou, the results of his third laboratory test came through: he was completely cured!

"When they told me 'Papus, you’re cured', I cried", he recalls, visibly moved.

A new life awaited him, although the feelings of joy at having regained his health were tempered by sadness at losing six relatives and several friends and acquaintances to Ebola.

Upon his return to N'Zérékoré, capital of the Guinée Forestière region and another Ebola hotspot, Papus devoted all his energy to combating the disease. "I told myself that it would be selfish to stay at home and do nothing", said the young man and father of a seven-year-old child.

With the support of the EU, the NGO Alima (Alliance for International Medical Action) built a treatment centre in the village of Loulé, some 15 minutes from N'Zérékoré. Papus took advantage of the opportunity this presented and attended all the information sessions. When rumours started to fly about the waste incinerator at the Ebola treatment centre, he managed to convince even the most sceptical village residents that the incinerator was not a crematorium furnace and that nobody would come and steal patients’ organs and blood. A survivor’s word carries considerable weight – all the more so in Papus’ case, seeing as he was fortunate enough to have never been stigmatised by his community.

Alima’s Ebola treatment centre opened at the beginning of December 2014. Papus started working there as a health promoter a week and a half later. Since then, he has talked about the illness to his neighbours and raised awareness of Ebola in local radio broadcasts, churches and public places. In doing so he is honouring the wish of his late father, who advised him to "always strive to save lives".

Papus says he is thrilled to work for Alima and in so doing help his community and Guinea more generally to defeat the Ebola epidemic.

"When I see someone leaving the centre cured of the disease, I am proud in the knowledge that I played a part in helping them recover" he says with delight. He is also happy to be able to provide some modest support for the rest of his family, thanks to the income he receives from Alima.

Having been trained as a lab assistant, Papus’ dream is to enrol in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Conakry and continue his studies. In the meantime, he is devoting himself heart and soul to the fight against Ebola.

This story was also published on the European Year for Development website.