Senga Omeonga is doing better. Much better. Three weeks ago, FRANCE 24 interviewed this Congolese doctor who contracted the Ebola virus while working in Monrovia, Liberia. At the time, he was wasting away in the hallway of a hospital, without any treatment or food. Today, while he still feels weak, he no longer has the virus. He told us about his journey to hell and back.
Doctor Senga Omeonga lost 20 kilos, and still speaks with a weak voice, but he’s regained much of his strength, both physical and mental. He is one the very few, very lucky survivors of the deadly Ebola epidemic, which has spread through Western Africa in the past few months. Omeonga and two other doctors in Liberia were given Zmapp, a drug that was tested for the first time in early August on two American health workers, who have since recovered from the virus. However, this experimental treatment hasn’t cured everyone: one of the doctors in Liberia who was given Zmapp as treatment died last Sunday.
"My status as a doctor working internationally worked in my favour in getting me this drug"
I’m still exhausted, but I know I’m out of the woods. On Thursday, I underwent one last medical test, and it proved I am no longer infected. I had gone home on Tuesday after having spent nearly three weeks at Elwa hospital, the only medical centre in Monrovia that’s taking Ebola patients.
'People around me were dying like flies'
The first few days at that hospital were a real nightmare. There was not nearly enough staff or medical supplies. Since there were no rooms available, I had to wait in a hallway, lying on the ground, for a week. There was only one toilet for several dozen patients. A friend of mine came every day to give me food. In these conditions, I thought I would never survive; people around me were dying like flies. A bed finally opened up, and a doctor treated me with Zmapp. He administered it to me three times. I believe my status as a doctor working internationally worked in my favour in getting me this drug. Still, it was risky – the third dose of Zmapp almost killed me, since I had a strong allergic reaction to it and went into anaphylactic shock.
Every day since then, I’ve been steadily getting better. I intend to go back to work soon. My job as a doctor is to keep treating patients, including those who have contracted the Ebola virus.
'Since I left the hospital, some of my friends are scared of me'
Since I’ve left the hospital, it’s been interesting to see that some of my friends are a bit scared of me, at least those that don’t have any medical knowledge. Many of them refuse to come visit me, thinking I may still be carrying the virus. In Liberia, people living in regions touched by the epidemic have gone into a sort of mass psychosis leading to very irrational acts [Editor’s Note: Villagers in a town north-east of Monrovia recently barricaded a family in their home, where they died].
This fear is starting to spread all over the country. The health ministry is having trouble recruiting medical staff – which means that hundreds of people will no doubt die simply due to lack of personnel – and politicians are fleeing the country. [Editor’s Note: President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf fired a number of high-ranking officials who refused to return to the country to help fight the epidemic].
Ebola is contracted through direct contact with blood or body fluids, through sexual intercourse or by handling contaminated cadavers. That’s why medical personnel and those who do funerary services have been the most affected. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), to date, 240 health workers have contracted the virus in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, of which 120 have died. The WHO estimates that in the countries that in these three countries, there are only one or two doctors per 100,000 residents. They are mostly concentrated in cities, while Ebola has hit rural zones as well.
The latest statistics, from September 1, tally 3,069 cases of Ebola, of which 1,522 deaths, in four Western African countries (694 in Liberia, 430 in Guinea, 422 in Sierra Leone, and six in Nigeria).
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Grégoire Remund (@gregoireremund).