W. Africa bat­tles mys­tery of post-Ebola ill­ness

The China Post - - LIFE - BY ZOOM DOSSO

As the Ebola epi­demic re­treats across west Africa, in­ter­na­tional health au­thor­i­ties are turn­ing their at­ten­tion to the lit­tle un­der­stood long- term ef­fects of the of­ten- deadly virus on the sur­vivors.

There is lit­tle re­search on pa­tients cured of the trop­i­cal fever, but the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion ( WHO) has ac­knowl­edged that many are experiencing crip­pling com­pli­ca­tions long af­ter walk­ing out of treat­ment units.

Mat­shidiso Moeti, the WHO’s new head in Africa, told AFP that Liberian sur­vivors had been re­port­ing a range of prob­lems, in­clud­ing sight and hear­ing im­pair­ment.

“We need to be aware that (com­pli­ca­tions) may be oc­cur­ring and pay at­ten­tion when peo­ple are be­ing treated in case there is some­thing that can be done to help them,” she told AFP in the Liberian cap­i­tal Mon­rovia.

Moeti said the U. N. agency had ini­tially fo­cused on keep­ing peo­ple alive in its battle against the worst ever out­break of the virus, which it says has left al­most 11,000 peo­ple dead in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

“So we are very much learn­ing about this,” Moeti told AFP.

More than 26,000 peo­ple have been in­fected with Ebola since the out­break be­gan in De­cem­ber 2013, ac­cord­ing to the WHO, which ad­mits the of­fi­cial mor­tal­ity fig­ures are prob­a­bly some way short of the real death toll.

The epi­demic rav­aged the three coun­tries, in­fect­ing hun­dreds of peo­ple a week dur­ing its peak last fall, but the spread has slowed to a crawl.

Liberia, once the hard­est hit coun­try, has re­ported no new cases since the last pa­tient died on March 27 and was buried a day later.

‘Pa­tients are now blind’

Moeti’s com­ments were prompted as she toured Mon­rovia’s health fa­cil­i­ties and Ebo­lahit com­mu­ni­ties on Wed­nes­day, where she met Beatrice Yor­doldo, the last Liberian pa­tient to leave a treat­ment cen­ter alive.

Yor­doldo, who was dis­charged on March 5, said the “ma­jor­ity of the sur­vivors” she had spo­ken to were com­plain­ing of im­paired sight and hear­ing, headaches and other com­pli­ca­tions.

The WHO ac­knowl­edged the is­sue as early as Oc­to­ber, when it car­ried an in­ter­view on its web­site with a psy­choso­cial sup­port of­fi­cer in Ken­ema, eastern Sierra Leone.

“We are see­ing a lot of peo­ple with vi­sion prob­lems. Some com­plain of clouded vi­sion, but for oth­ers the vis­ual loss is pro­gres­sive. I have seen two peo­ple who are now blind,” Mar­garet Nany­onga said.

Nany­onga, who calls the prob­lem “post-Ebola syn­drome,” said vis­ual prob­lems had af­fected around half of Ebola sur­vivors in Ken­ema, while oth­ers com­plained of joint, mus­cle and chest pain and ex­treme fa­tigue.

“We need to un­der­stand why th­ese symptoms persist, whether they are caused by the dis­ease or treat­ment, or per­haps the heavy dis­in­fec­tion,” Nany­onga said.

With re­search thin on the ground, health au­thor­i­ties have no real mea­sure of the ex­tent of the prob­lem, but it doesn’t ap­pear to be con­fined to Africa.

Amer­i­can nurse Nina Pham, who was in­fected while car­ing for a Liberian man at a Texas hos­pi­tal, told the Dal­las Morn­ing News last month she had ex­pe­ri­enced hair loss, aches and in­som­nia af­ter be­ing given the

all- clear in Oc­to­ber.

Fo­cus on Sav­ing Lives

Aches and fa­tigue are com­mon side-ef­fects in pa­tients re­cov­er­ing from se­ri­ous in­fec­tion, re­sult­ing from the im­mune sys­tem’s re­lease of chem­i­cals to fight the ill­ness.

But ex­perts ad­mit they don’t yet know if this is what is go­ing on in­side the bod­ies of Ebola sur­vivors.

The speed of the spread of the virus took the world by sur­prise, and by the time a con­certed in­ter­na­tional ef­fort was in place to stem the epi­demic, it had al­ready over­whelmed the health ser­vices of the worst-hit coun­tries.

The epi­demic has dwarfed all pre­vi­ous out­breaks com­bined — fewer than 2,500 cases were recorded be­tween Ebola’s dis­cov­ery in 1976 and the cur­rent out­break — and has killed around two-thirds of those in­fected, ex­perts be­lieve.

While sur­vivors of pre­vi­ous out­breaks re­ported health com­pli­ca­tions, past epi­demics were never big enough to war­rant in-depth re­search into the af­ter-ef­fects.

A rare up­side of the scale of the cur­rent out­break has been that there are thou­sands of sur­vivors who can be stud­ied to give health au­thor­i­ties the knowl­edge to be bet­ter pre­pared for fu­ture out­breaks.

Moeti, a qual­i­fied medic who took up her five-year ap­point­ment in Fe­bru­ary, says the WHO is just be­gin­ning to play catch-up in its re­search into post-Ebola com­pli­ca­tions.

“I think this is some­thing about which we need to learn more in de­tail for the fu­ture so that ... as part of treat­ing peo­ple with Ebola we are look­ing out for th­ese kind of symptoms,” she told AFP.

“Be­cause I think in the first acute treat­ment of peo­ple with Ebola our fo­cus (was) on keep­ing them alive and per­haps th­ese other symptoms emerged later on.”

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