As the scourge of Ebola dissipates and the world turns its attention elsewhere, survivors and their families are still grappling with a host of ailments. In total, nearly 13,000 West Africans have been affected by what doctors describe as an “emergency within an emergency” as they struggle with ongoing health issues that may have stemmed from the recent epidemic.
While researchers recall similar issues among the survivors of the 1995 Ebola outbreak in the Congo and previous epidemics that had Uganda under siege in the 2000s, they say it’s not enough to conduct an extensive scientific study. However, research conducted by the National Institutes of Health in June alluded to the connection between Ebola and persistent sicknesses.
Lingering health issues may include blindness, emotional trauma, fatigue, fever, headache, joint and lower abdominal pain, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Questions remain as to whether Ebola caused these ailments or whether patients had them before the outbreak. As part of an effort to solve that mystery and track long-term recovery, the Partnership for Research on Ebola Vaccines in Liberia, also known as PREVAIL, recently launched a five-year study involving 7,500 people — 1,500 Ebola survivors and 6,000 of their relatives.
“If we can find out this kind of information, hopefully we can help other Ebola survivors in the future,” Dr. Zan Yeong, an eye specialist involved in a study of health problems in survivors in Liberia, told The Associated Press. “We don’t have the capacity yet — we wish we did — to follow every survivor.”
Inquiries about the new illnesses afflicting the West African region during the downturn of Ebola call to mind prior struggles to keep malaria, a disease proven to be much deadlier, under control at the height of the epidemic. The impact with which disease hit the region, killing more than 11,000 people within a matter of months, shed light on the afflicted countries’ weak health care infrastructure and dearth of qualified medical professionals.
The health problems that derived from or exasperated the Ebola outbreak have inspired calls among African heads of state to increase their capacity to tackle future outbreaks and expand current post-Ebola checkup efforts. At the height of the outbreak, Liberia had fewer than 170 doctors and the amount of available medical personnel plummeted during a nurse’s strike. Additionally, officials struggled to meet a growing demand for basic medical supplies — like specimen collection tubes, body bags, spray cans, and stationary gloves.
Earlier this year, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf appealed to her fellow heads of state for additional support that would help the country build its capacity to tackle future outbreaks. In March, representatives of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra — three countries at the epicenter of the Ebola epidemic — presented recovery plans before donors at a summit in Brussel and called for a multi-million dollar post-Ebola Marshall Plan to rebuild the countries’ economies. U.S. officials had similar sentiments, forging a partnership with the African Union in April to form an African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), tentatively set to launch sometime this year.
Though medical and government officials lauded the collaboration, critics say it must address concerns about strong leadership and budgeting. An analysis found that the African public health body would need 300 staff members and $50 million to coordinate emergency response activity.
The monumental task of capacity building is left up to African countries themselves, which have struggled to create an environment that’s welcoming of the continent’s best and brightest. Doctors in Ghana, for instance, just suspended a strike that has gone on for three weeks. Lack of pay, which is a problem that extends beyond medical personnel in that region, count among their primary gripes.
As CDC head Tom Frieden warned toward the end of last year, the fight against Ebola won’t stop with eradicating new diagnoses of the disease. But groups working to connect survivors with proper care do have some good news to celebrate in this area. Sierra Leonean authorities released their last Ebola patient on Monday, and — after a brief uptick in new infections this summer — neighboring Liberia is also on its way to declaring itself Ebola free again. Guinea, too, has found some success with the advent of experimental Ebola vaccines that researchers say show some promise of keeping the disease at bay.