TRAUMATISED by the death of eight of her relatives from Ebola, Tina Varney stares blankly out of the window while recalling the terror that struck her as she was taken from her family home.
According to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, having caught the deadly virus from her brother-in-law and watched her father and brother die, Varney feared the worst as the ambulance approached the nearby Ebola treatment centre.
“There were rumours of patients being beaten, fed with shovels and left on their own,” the 36-year-old Liberian said.
“I thought I would die,” she added, sitting in the waiting room of an Ebola survivor clinic in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia.
Varney is among Liberia’s 6,000 survivors of the world’s worst Ebola outbreak, which has infected 28,000 and killed 11,300 in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone since December 2013.
Although Liberia – the hardest-hit country with some 4,800 deaths – was declared Ebola-free for a third time last week, the nightmare is far from over for those who survived the epidemic.
Ebola can lie dormant and hide in parts of the body such as the eyes and testicles long after leaving the bloodstream – raising questions about whether it can ever be beaten, with West Africa’s 17,000 survivors acting as a potential human reservoir.
While experts say the risk of Ebola re-emerging in survivors and being transmitted to others is low, the fact that the virus is able to lurk in the body can cause various health problems.
Many survivors suffer from memory loss, joint pain, and eye inflammation that can lead to blindness, as well as trauma, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
They have also had to endure abuse and rejection from friends and families, communities and even health workers.
“There is often fear, paranoia and stigma in other health facilities,” said Emmanuel Ballah, counsellor and team leader at the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) survivor clinic in Monrovia.
“Survivors come here as we care about our patients, we follow up on them and offer psychosocial support,” he said.
The MSF clinic, one of four survivor centres in Monrovia, diagnoses illnesses, prescribes medication and refers patients to specialists for severe problems like loss of vision.
Around two-thirds of those who visit the clinic suffer from eye problems, joint pain or mental health problems, MSF said.
Half a dozen patients chat in the bright, airy waiting room as staff rush past, coordinating psychosocial care – both group and one-on-one sessions.