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With a disease where you can’t touch, Ebola survivors lend a caring hand

BY   October 24, 2014 at 9:02 AM EDT
Dr. Jerry Brown tries to comfort Esther Tokpah, 11, before she was released from care on Sept. 24 in Monrovia, Liberia. She lost both parents to Ebola. Photo by Michel du Cille/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Dr. Jerry Brown tries to comfort Esther Tokpah, 11, before she was released from care on Sept. 24 in Monrovia, Liberia. She lost both parents to Ebola. Photo by Michel du Cille/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Dekontee Davis, 23, lives just outside of Liberia’s capital of Monrovia. She nearly died of Ebola, but is healthy and strong today.

Now, Davis is one of a team of Ebola survivors tapped by groups such as UNICEF to care for children in quarantine facilities in Monrovia.

Davis contracted Ebola from an aunt-in-law who ended up dying of the disease. “It was so terrible,” she recently recounted by phone. Days dragged by before Davis responded to treatment at last.

As an Ebola survivor, Davis is immune to getting the disease again and can safely tend to children whose parents have died from Ebola and are waiting out the 21-day incubation period to make sure they don’t have the virus as well.

UNICEF estimates that at least 3,700 children have had one or both parents die from Ebola in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone since the outbreaks began in March.

“The unique thing about this child-protection emergency is you can’t reach down and touch children,” said Sheldon Yett, UNICEF’s representative to Liberia. “Survivors are the ones who can provide that care, support and love, and human contact that others can’t.”

The survivor workers, who get paid a small stipend by the government, are eager to give something back, said Yett. “Many have gone through the living depths of god awfulness. So they’re thrilled to be alive and give back to the community.”

They also serve another purpose, as “a beacon of hope,” said Yett. Many people are afraid to call help lines or tell others they might have the disease because they think it’s a death sentence. “But the message from survivors is if you call the help line early enough and see a doctor, you’re much more likely to survive.”

The interim care centers are for children who don’t have parents who would otherwise be monitoring their symptoms, he said. Their temperature is taken regularly and if they show signs of the virus, they are taken to Ebola treatment centers.

The orphans who are cleared of the disease are often placed with extended family members, said Yett. “The good thing about Liberia is there is an extensive system of foster care, and of relatives taking care of other children.”

When Ebola survivors return to their communities, depending on where they live, they can be stigmatized by others who don’t fully understand that they are no longer contagious, said Yett.

Even children whose parents have died of Ebola and are sent to live with other relatives suffer the stigma, said Davis.

“That is why I decided to work with the children at the center — to love the children like my own,” she said. “When they come to the center, we will care for and love them because we know what they are going through.”

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