Granted immunity after winning their own battles with the deadly and horrific illness, survivors are providing the human comfort many young patients need.
Jeanine Masika, an Ebola survivor and mother of six, has been caring for Ebola patients at a treatment center in the North Kivu town of Beni without the usual intensive protective coverings — a comforting presence in a sea of masked medical workers.
Most health care workers appear as ambiguous figures distinguished only by names written on their suits in marker pen. That’s because they need a surgical mask, goggles, hooded coveralls, an apron, rubber boots and two pairs of gloves to avoid catching the virus that typically kills around half those it infects.
The outfits are hot, and in the stifling tropical temperatures of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo this limits the time they can spend with patients fighting for their lives in isolation units.
However, because Masika has antibodies in her system after winning her own battle with the disease, she is able to care for the sick and avoid infection due to her immunity. She is one of the dozens of survivors who are providing care -- and much-needed human contact — to some of the youngest victims of the second worst Ebola epidemic on record.
Of the more than 1,260 confirmed and probable Ebola cases, 28 percent are children, according to the World Health Organization. More than 800 people, including at least 248 under the age of 18, have died since the outbreak began in August. The outbreak is surpassed only by one in West Africa in 2013-16, which is believed to have killed more than 11,000 people.
Masika lost 10 relatives to the virus; four of those infected in her family survived. "It was as if Ebola had chosen my family," she said.
She was admitted to the same treatment center where she now works in September and stayed there for 21 days, battling horrific symptoms.
"It's like suffering from all the diseases of Congo at the same time," she said. "I felt bad all over my body: headache, stomach ache, diarrhea, vomiting, tiredness."
Masika's experience inspired her to join the fight against Ebola, comforting sick and frightened children who have to be isolated from their families and familiar surroundings to avoid infecting others. She is one of at least 23 former patients employed at the center in Beni, which is run by the Alliance for International Medical Action (ALIMA).
In late March, Masika was spending most of her time in a clear plastic isolation cube, Reuters reported. She rocked and fanned Furaha, a little girl who rarely stirred or cried. The cubes allow patients to see relatives during treatment, albeit through thick plastic walls.
"My goal is to make her happy," Masika said of her small charge, the youngest of five family members who were being treated at the center. "I treat the child like she's my own, so she's at ease even while she's away from her parents."
A few cubes down, the body of a two-year-old boy who had died in the night laid on a bed, his thin frame barely making a bump under the flowered sheet pulled up over his face.
Children are especially vulnerable to the virus because their bodies are less able to cope with the extreme fluid loss caused by diarrhea, vomiting, fever and bleeding, doctors say. More than two out of every three children sickened in this outbreak have died, according to WHO figures. Others were orphaned or left on their own when their parents went into treatment.
Claudine Kitsa, 40, had to place a child in care while she was being treated for Ebola in the nearby trading hub of Butembo. She now does shifts at a childcare facility operated by the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF, taking turns with other survivors to sleep next to the babies' cots on mosquito-netted beds.
For Kitsa, volunteering at the center is a “way of keeping love alive,” at a time when Ebola is robbing families of the ability to care for their loved ones. Healthcare workers say people like her play an invaluable role.
“We can’t be caring for children all of the time, because you can only wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for one hour at a time. And it would scare … children,” said Trish Newport, the Ebola representative for Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) in Congo’s eastern city of Goma.
“So to have survivors who can wear light protection and be with the children and bond with them, it's huge for us. We couldn't manage without them.”
She believes that survivors benefit from the experience as well.
“There's a lot of stigmatization for them in the community,” she said. But at the treatment centers, they are treated like heroes. Survivors also serve as educators and advocates for the centers in the community. This is Congo's 10th Ebola outbreak, but it is the first in the densely forested volcanic hillside provinces of North Kivu and Ituri.
Many are afraid to seek help from experts. Some believe the disease is part of a plot by foreign aid agencies to make money, others believed that Congo's former government was trying to kill off opposition supporters ahead of a December election.
It is one of the reasons this outbreak has been so difficult to contain, along with bouts of militia violence that send patients fleeing to other areas. Twenty new cases were reported Thursday and again Saturday, the highest daily tolls since the outbreak began.