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Speaking up for Ebola survivors in Sierra Leone

Allieu Sesay

Head of Production, BBC Media Action Sierra Leone

Abass became a voice for Ebola survivors across Sierra Leone. Allieu Sesay tells his ongoing story.

Holding his baby daughter in his arms, today Abass looks like any other proud father. But when we first met three years ago, at the peak of the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, it seemed hard to imagine this day would come.

Then I was spending nearly every day making radio programmes to share life-saving information to stop the virus spreading. Abass was volunteering at a health centre in Freetown. As an Ebola survivor he had some immunity to the virus and wanted to help other patients.

When Abass told me his story – I was appalled. His wife Fatima had lost both parents to Ebola and most of her extended family. Their six-month-old baby had died in the epidemic.

Like most survivors, he was suffering serious health complications and most painful of all – discrimination and isolation from society.

I asked him to speak on our radio programme to represent survivors, showing listeners their point of view and their daily struggles.

How media fought Ebola

When the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the Ebola outbreak an international public health emergency, we were already challenging misinformation and confusion in our discussion programmes, public service announcements and by training journalists across the country. We created “Kick Ebola”, a radio magazine programme and later Mr Plan Plan – a radio drama in local languages.

Radio programmes could reach large numbers of people, help them understand how to protect themselves and highlight how traditional practices – like caring for the sick or washing the bodies for traditional burials were killing people.

But increasingly it became important for ordinary people like Abass to say what they were going through - to have a voice – and most importantly for others to listen.

On-air counselling

Abass agreed to talk to a counsellor on air, helping others understand the devastating consequences of the stigma he faced. To help change perceptions we also invited a doctor to explain that you cannot catch Ebola by touching a survivor.

Through his bold statements and courage, he became an advocate for the needs of survivors. "Anyone who survived Ebola was a miracle at that time," he says, "but it was not easy for me and other people."

After the outbreak was declared over, and the government announced plans to restore essential services, we created a successor programme Wi Di Pipul (We The People). We reported on the country’s health, education and social care sectors, giving people information about their rights and entitlements. Read more about the impact of the programme here.

In Abass’s case, this meant getting the surgery he needed to address his health complications caused by Ebola, "I was unable to urinate and I was afraid of problems with my kidney," he said. He also helped keep up the pressure for the government to deliver on other promises – including providing free healthcare for survivors and pregnant women.

The road to recovery

Three years since the declaration of a public state of emergency - my country is slowly recovering.

And three months ago Abass and his wife welcomed Huratu Patricia, the baby daughter they longed for. They were fortunate to benefit from the free healthcare for pregnant women.

The road ahead isn’t easy. Abass’s health problems continue and make it hard for him to find employment. He is one of more than 4,000 survivors suffering from post-Ebola syndrome. Symptoms include joint and muscle pain, blindness, and neurological problems. Many people are still stigmatised and rejected by their families and communities, and struggle to find a way back to how their lives were before the epidemic.

As Wi Di Pipul comes to an end this month. I’m proud of the work we’ve done to give people a voice but know it is more important than ever for survivors to continue to be heard.

We need to continue amplifying their needs and concerns to help them rebuild their lives and build a future for Huratu Patricia and her generation. Let’s talk about what will happen next.


Allieu Sesay is the Head of Production for BBC Media Action in Sierra Leone


BBC Media Action is not funded by the BBC licence fee and depends on the generous support of donors. Help support our work.

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