The world’s worst Ebola epidemic that erupted last year, killing more than 11,000, has all but disappeared from the public eye.
In fact, Liberia, one of the three countries in West Africa hit hardest by the outbreak, has been free of the virus for more than a month, and the number of transmissions is waning in Sierra Leone and Guinea, the other two countries where the outbreak mainly occurred.
But for the some 13,000 survivors, the fight is far from over.
That’s why Dr. Bruce Gaynor, an ophthalmologist and associate professor at UC San Francisco, will travel to Sierra Leone this month to treat survivors of Ebola who continue to experience symptoms even after defeating the virus.
“What we have learned now, but also from the previous epidemics, is that there are … effects of the acute infection for up to two years afterwards,” Gaynor said. “Even if there is no evidence of the infection … there are a lot of symptoms they have for two years after the disease.”
Symptoms include fatigue, joint pain, difficulty sleeping, muscle weakness and uveitis, or inflammation of the eye. Doctors began studying that particular symptom after Dr. Ian Crozier, an infectious disease specialist and Ebola survivor, developed an infection in his eye after recovering from Ebola last year.
Left untreated, uveitis can lead to extreme pain and even blindness, Gaynor said.
Unless he sees a patient with Ebola, Gaynor will not have to wear the extensive personal protective equipment donned by health care workers who treat Ebola patients. Still, upon returning to San Francisco, he will need to be screened by the Department of Public Health for the standard 21 days.
Gaynor noted that the stigma surrounding Ebola has faded as the virus has become more controlled, particularly with the introduction of vaccines and experimental treatments.
“We were so scared a year ago,” he said. “We’re still somewhat fearful now, but it’s much more contained and controlled.”
Other UCSF doctors have traveled to West Africa to treat Ebola patients and survivors since the outbreak erupted, an effort enhanced by the university’s vacation hour donation system in which employees can offer their unused vacation hours for health care workers.
As of this month, 97 people donated more than 2,600 vacation hours.
Health care and humanitarian workers who aided in the response emphasized that the war-torn West African countries battling the disease were already struggling with a crumbling healthcare system before the Ebola outbreak.