Doctor Roger Saki, an Ebola survivor
Dr. Roger Saki, one of 274 Ebola survivors in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), explains the importance of food and nutrition during an epidemic
The city of Beni in North Kivu province is the epicenter of DRC’s current Ebola outbreak, so its General Hospital is very busy, working tirelessly to provide the best possible care to patients. At the entrance to the hospital, hands and shoes are thoroughly disinfected as a preventive measure. In an adjoining room, 15 people are gathered. They are Ebola survivors, who were treated with an experimental molecular therapy and became immunized against the virus. They are here to pick up their first WFP food allocation.
“If you survive this terrible disease, you must speak out,” says Dr. Roger Saki, one of the cured. “First, because it kills, which some people refuse to believe. And second, because you can be cured if you quickly seek treatment.” He was infected one month earlier while performing a cesarean section on a woman who was unaware she carried the virus.
The woman’s sudden death shortly after the surgery alerted Dr. Roger and his colleagues. Even though, like all health workers, he had been vaccinated against the virus as a preventive measure, having touched an Ebola victim, he’d become ‘a contact person.’
The deceased woman’s baby daughter, presumed to have been contaminated in utero, is still being treated at the hospital. She is in good health, despite the considerable danger Ebola poses for a newborn. ‘Contacts’ receive WFP food assistance alongside patients undergoing treatment and discharged patients. As well as nourishing during recovery, WFP food encourages ‘contacts’ to stay at home to limit the spread of the disease as well as medical follow-up.
Ten days after performing the operation, Dr. Saki started to feel symptoms of infection, particularly extreme fatigue. He phoned the special ambulance service set up and run by Ebola survivors — ‘Ebola winners’, as they call themselves — to take him to Beni hospital
The ‘winners’ immunity allows them to do what nobody else can: community sensitization, ferrying suspected sufferers for treatment on motorcycle ‘ambulances’, caring for Ebola patients and their children, and counselling affected families to help soothe their anxieties.
“The next day, a doctor confirmed I was infected and started the experimental therapy. I chose to stay positive,” says Dr. Saki, whose treatment lasted three weeks. “The side effects are considerable on the liver and kidneys and it takes two negative tests 72 hours apart for a cure to be certified.”
Treatment leaves patients very weak, and with ravenous appetites. WFP therefor provides survivors and their families with 90 kg of food a month for 12 months. The food allocation consists of maize flour, beans, oil, salt and specially-blended grains.
“WFP food is essential because it restores us. Without it, we would be much more vulnerable to illness after leaving hospital,” says Dr. Saki.
European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) is funding WFP’s Ebola response, aware as they are that the more rigorous the effort, the sooner the fight can be won. The tenth Ebola outbreak in the DRC is the second largest in history, with over 661 confirmed and probable cases and more than 364 lives lost. Still, 274 people have survived the virus.
“Survival has motivated me to pursue my profession with greater vigor,” says Dr. Saki. “Being both a doctor and a survivor is such a rare combination. I now want to study epidemiology, to better help save lives should another outbreak occur.”
Since the beginning of the current outbreak in August 2018, WFP has supported 114,000 affected people with food and nutrition assistance. Containment remains a big challenge, given the persisting community resistance to responders and the difficulty of tracing those who may have been directly exposed to the virus — in turn a consequence of the exceptionally volatile and insecure environment in the affected area.
Read more about WFP’s work in the DRC.