Ebola survivors in Liberia regain sight with U.S. help

William, a hospital worker in Monrovia, Liberia, contracted Ebola while helping patients during the outbreak three years ago. He was lucky to have survived. But a few months after he was declared Ebola-free, he started having trouble with his eyes.

William was not alone. A number of Ebola survivors now suffer from uveitis — inflammation inside the eye. Some have also developed cataracts that have left them legally blind. A U.S.-backed effort is helping them to regain their sight.

Young man looking at eye chart as man in blue scrubs points to line of letters (Joshua Yospyn/JSL)
Dr. Steven Yeh, an ophthalmologist with the Emory Eye Center, tests a patient in Foya, a rural area in the northern tip of Liberia. (Joshua Yospyn/JSL)

A handful of Liberian health care providers are trained to perform cataract surgery, but the process is complicated because the Ebola virus may still be in the patient’s eye. In the fall of 2017, cataract surgeons, ophthalmologists and lab specialists from Emory University in Georgia and Johns Hopkins University hospitals in Maryland came to Liberia to help.

The effort, led by the U.S. Agency for International Development, is part of a program that treats patients and also trains Liberian medical health workers in ophthalmology and other skills so that they can address similar health issues on their own in the future.

Man in surgical scrubs talking to group of people (Joshua Yospyn/JSL)
Dr. Ian Crozier, an infectious diseases physician who contracted Ebola while in Africa, discusses the disease with people at a community care center in Liberia. (Joshua Yospyn/JSL)

Another Ebola survivor, Levi, lost his wife, parents and brother to Ebola. Now he is left to take care of his two children, as well as his brother’s three children. For Levi, clear vision is crucial so that he can find work to support them. “Even if I get a janitor job, I will be happy, because I will be able to send my children to school,” he said.

Three patients wearing eye patches sitting and waiting in open-air room (Joshua Yospyn/JSL)
Ebola survivors Beatrice (left) and William (center) wait during a post-op check at a hospital in Monrovia, Liberia. They both underwent cataract surgery the previous day. (Joshua Yospyn/JSL)

Like many survivors, Beatrice faced stigma and discrimination in her community after she was discharged from the Ebola Treatment Unit. Beatrice then experienced almost three years of near-blindness. The surgery allowed her to see her newborn child for the first time. “I am able to take care of my children, to walk by myself, to go to the market, to sell, to do anything,” she said.

The day after their surgeries, William, Levi and Beatrice woke up with clearer vision and an eagerness to start living their lives as they had before they contracted Ebola.

“I was a little bit afraid when I got in,” said William, who was one of the few patients to receive cataract surgery on both eyes. “I thought it was gonna hurt. Or I thought it was gonna bust my eye. Because that was the story people gave me, discouraging me. But that didn’t happen. Now, this morning, I can see bright.”

Levi urged other survivors who are suffering from cataracts to consider surgery. “They shouldn’t be afraid,” he said. “They should come and be free from darkness.”

A longer version of this story appears on USAID’s website