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Even after surviving Ebola, people still remain very sick for months afterwards

AP Photo/Jerome Delay, File
“Everyone in those countries has lived through Ebola and has seen relatives either survive or die.”
  • Annalisa Merelli
By Annalisa Merelli

Senior reporter based in New York City

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

With the largest Ebola epidemic in history on its way out and an effective vaccine hopefully within reach, it can be hard to remember that the struggle isn’t over for its survivors.

Some 13,000 people contracted and survived the disease in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia; the largest number of survivors from previous outbreaks was around 200. That doesn’t account for all the people who avoided contracting the disease but lived through the shock and grief. As Anders Nordstrom, a World Health Organization (WHO) representative in Sierra Leone said during an Aug. 7 meeting about epidemic’s survivors: ”Everybody more or less in those three countries are survivors. Everyone in those countries has lived through Ebola and has seen relatives either survive or die.”

Since no comparable precedent is available, there isn’t much knowledge of the after-effects of the disease. The long-term effects of Ebola include “vision problems; immune system changes; mental disorders; joint pain; diabetes; hypertension; and pregnancy complications,” according to the National Institute of Health, and studies are underway to observe the progress of such symptoms.

According to WHO representatives in the field who spoke during the Aug. 7 meeting, about half of the the people who recovered from Ebola report debilitating joint pain for months after being otherwise rid of the disease. Being Ebola-free is defined as no longer having symptoms of the disease that cause illness (such as fever), and no longer testing positive for the virus in the blood or bodily fluids, with the exceptions of semen and eye fluid.

A quarter of survivors have lasting vision problems, some serious enough to lead to blindness. The health consequences can lead to economic distress; Ebola-stricken communities often have disabled people who cannot return to work. Information is also limited about how long Ebola lingers as a sexually transmitted disease, and whether women who survive Ebola suffer complications during pregnancy.

The WHO representatives also noted the high risk of mental health consequences, both for those who contracted the disease and those who saw it affect others. As Daniel Bausch of the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine noted at the meeting: ”Some mental health impact, of course, is probably almost universal. It’s hard to imagine that it would not be.”

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