An Ebola survivor goes back to work

February 3, 2018
Written by Kristen Cahill, Senior Program Manager, Innovations for Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health
Photo by Kieran McConville

Fatmata Peeter is a traditional birth attendant (TBA) from Sierra Leone’s Yonni village. She survived Ebola, but found herself in the middle of another health crisis as stillbirths and deaths among children under 5 posed a crisis to rival the deadly virus.

Fatmata Peeter is a traditional birth attendant (TBA) from Sierra Leone’s Bo District. In March 2014, she joined Innovations’ Essential Newborn Care Corps (ENCC) to “do something good for her community.” This was part of a pilot project to increase hospital births and lower infant and maternal mortality rates. 

One year later, Fatmata had made over 100 home visits and lifesaving referrals for pregnant women and newborns as a maternal newborn health promoter. However, as the Ebola outbreak continued to escalate in the Bo District, Fatmata had to worry about her own health. When sister-in-law died in a local hospital in Tikonko, the reasons were unknown. Fatmata went to the funeral with her husband and son, unaware that her sister-in-law had contracted Ebola and that their community’s traditional burial rituals would put her family at risk.

The Ebola virus hit Fatmata’s home a week later. Her son fell ill with stomach pain, and she cared for him at home. Her husband became sick a few days later, and finally Fatmata herself began to feel ill. 

Surviving an “Ebola House”

A nurse at the local health facility heard that Fatmata’s family in Kpetema was sick, and when she investigated, saw that Fatmata’s home was an “Ebola house.” The nurse called for a special ambulance to take Fatmata and her family to a treatment center in Bandajuma, about 30 miles away, where they were officially diagnosed with the Ebola virus and spent the next three weeks in treatment. During those three weeks, Fatmata’s two smallest grandchildren, whom she had cared for in her home, passed away from complications of Ebola before they were able to reach the treatment facility.

The number of new cases in Sierra Leone began to decline in early 2015 due to a shift in interventions such as contact tracing, community health education, and changing burial practices.

Fatmata, her husband, and son were released to their home village in late November 2014, at a time in Sierra Leone where the survival rate for Ebola was 60% according to World Health Organization data. 

The survivor stigma

Initially, the communities Fatmata had served in the Bo District stigmatized her upon her return. As part of the government’s work to contain the Ebola epidemic, most of Fatmata’s neighbors were quarantined for 21 days following her admission to the treatment center. 

The number of new cases in Sierra Leone began to decline in early 2015 due to a shift in interventions such as contact tracing, community health education, and changing burial practices (all of which have been central to Concern Worldwide’s Ebola response). However, the ostracizing of survivors prevailed. 

Baindu Saidu is currently supervising and training traditional birth attendants in Bo District

Baindu Saidu, supervising and training traditional birth attendants in Bo District

“Many people would not come close to me,” she told Concern. “They refused me in the community. They blamed me for their problems, for the quarantine.”

Over time, work by community leaders in partnership with organizations like Concern and local governments helped to subvert the harmful stigmas attached to survivors. “Now they see me, and they listen to me,” Fatmata added. “Now when I speak about Ebola, everyone comes to hear what Fatmata has to say on the issue.”

“Many people would not come close to me… Now when I speak about Ebola, everyone comes to hear what Fatmata has to say on the issue.” — Fatmata Peeter, Ebola survivor and traditional birth attendant

From one crisis to the next

Communities such as Fatmata’s are increasingly equipped with the means and information to halt the outbreak of Ebola. But as Fatmata survived one public health crisis, she found herself in the middle of another in her role as a maternal newborn health promoter. Stillbirths and deaths among children under five appear to remain alarmingly high even as deaths attributed directly to Ebola decline.

The easing of restrictions in Sierra Leone allowed Innovations to restart the ENCC program, and TBAs like Fatmata were eager to get back to work.

“I still feel pain in my bones but I am getting stronger every day,” Fatmata said. On receiving 50 pounds of rice from Concern, she said, “I will eat it and grow stronger and go back to work helping my village.”

What was killing the children of Sierra Leone?

Respiratory tract infections, diarrhea, malaria, and poor feeding practices can all cause high levels of infant and child mortality in Sierra Leone. A delay in seeking medical care, for whatever reason, can exacerbate any of these issues. But the story behind what was killing so many children in 2015 during the Ebola epidemic is more complicated than that.

Learn more about the second crisis that plagued Sierra Leone, claiming the lives of hundreds of infants and children under 5.