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An 'Overhappy' Survivor, A Guarded Forecast: Reporting On Ebola

Saidu Kanneh speaks to the community in Koindu, Sierra Leone, about surviving Ebola. He spent 12 days in a treatment center and was released this week.
Tommy Trenchard for NPR
Saidu Kanneh speaks to the community in Koindu, Sierra Leone, about surviving Ebola. He spent 12 days in a treatment center and was released this week.

NPR's Jason Beaubien is in Sierra Leone, covering the Ebola outbreak that began in March in Guinea and has spread to neighboring countries. When we spoke Friday, he had an inspirational story to share.

Between the plane shot down in Ukraine and the war in Gaza, this has been a sad week for the world. How are things in Sierra Leone?

I have some good news for you. Today I was at that corner of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, where the first cases of Ebola [were reported]. I was following around MSF [Doctors Without Borders]. They're training volunteers to explain to the community what causes Ebola, what the symptoms are, how to protect yourself.

We're in this meeting with probably three dozen people, and this guy walks in. He is the former health officer from the region called Koindu, which sits right up against the [Guinea] border. And he got Ebola.

He had just gotten out of the treatment center this week. He walked in to this hero's welcome; everyone started cheering and clapping. It was like he was taking the stage in The Price Is Right. He came running up to the front of the room, declaring that he's free [of Ebola] and that he survived. It was this incredibly joyful moment.

What was his name, and how did he look?

He's Saidu Kanneh, and he's about 40 years old. He just had this spring in his step, this incredible smile across his face. He was full of energy. He was planning to spread the word that you can survive this. He refers to himself as "overhappy."

Does he know how he was infected?

He was one of the first medical workers dealing with cases. He said he was working with this woman who had Ebola. He was wearing rubber gloves, but there was a gap between the gloves and his shirt. He believes that's how it happened.

How long was he ill?

He spent 12 days in the treatment center in Kailahun and got out this week, completely cured. MSF people tell me no virus could be detected in him anymore.

Did you talk to him when he was in isolation?

I talked to him across the fence [separating the isolation area]. He was saying he was incredibly bored inside. He would come and sit by the fence and listen to his radio. He was eager to get out.

Do Sierra Leoneans stand by the fence to talk with family members in isolation?

Supposedly people are able to do that. But we didn't see any family members interacting with patients while we were there. That's not to say [such interactions] are not going on. But people are quite nervous about coming to the treatment center.

Do we know why some people are able to survive Ebola?

The MSF people say getting people in early [for treatment] gives them about a 10 percent better chance of surviving. You basically treat it like influenza. You rehydrate patients. If people have a fever, you knock it down with Tylenol.

Did Kanneh have any advice to share?

If doctors told him to drink 4 liters [1.1 gallons] a day of water, he drank 10 liters [2.6 gallons]. For him, it was just focus, focus, focus on recovery

Did anything surprise you from your time in Sierra Leone covering Ebola?

Ebola is not quite as scary as it seemed when I first got here. It's not like everybody here has Ebola. There are a couple hundred cases in this part of Sierra Leone — a district with half a million people.

That's not to downplay the problem. But being here has made me realize that Ebola is not as "in your face" as you think it'd be. And it's quite clear that this can be contained.

Is anyone predicting when this outbreak will end?

Everybody seems to feel this is going to go on for months — if we're lucky — rather than years. People are hoping to get over the hump and see numbers go down. The turning point has not been reached. But the elements are coming together that could wipe this outbreak out.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marc Silver
Marc Silver, who edits NPR's global health blog, has been a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Jewish Times, U.S. News & World Report and National Geographic. He is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond and co-author, with his daughter, Maya Silver, of My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice From Real-Life Teens. The NPR story he co-wrote with Rebecca Davis and Viola Kosome -- 'No Sex For Fish' — won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists.
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