Ebola survivors could play critical frontline roles as care givers and blood donors in the battle against the deadly virus - because of their built-in immunity to it, top charity and government officials in Sierra Leone said on Thursday.
Andrew Brooks, a senior U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) official, said developing a network of those who had survived the highly infectious disease and could be involved in the response against it would be a way of more effectively addressing the outbreak that has killed nearly 4,500 people.
That job is made tough however by preconceptions towards those who have contracted Ebola and not died: A recent UNICEF survey of 1,400 households across Sierra Leone found survivors face high levels of stigma and discrimination from communities that undermines their ability to rebuild their lives.
Children in particular are vulnerable when communities do not step in to help, the report found.
In an attempt to combat those prejudices and discuss ways to act, some 35 survivors met on Thursday in Kenema in eastern Sierra Leone - an epicentre of the outbreak - in a two-day gathering organised by the government in partnership with UNICEF and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
They will talk about their experience, learn how to deal with the psychological aftermath and look for ways to help others fight the disease.
"Sierra Leone is facing one of the biggest crises in its history, and to defeat Ebola we need the help of every citizen," Alhaji Moijue Kaikai, Sierra Leone's social welfare minister said on Thursday.
"People who have survived Ebola give hope to others who are still fighting the disease. We need to accept survivors and welcome them back to our families and our communities."
The World Health Organization (WHO) said in September that products and serum derived from the blood of survivors could be used to treat the disease until experimental drugs currently under development enter production. A British man and two U.S. health workers who survived the illness have already donated their blood to victims.
The head of a treatment centre in Liberia, the country worst-hit by the outbreak, has urged survivors to donate their blood for use in treating infected patients.
But Brooks, a UNICEF regional child protection adviser, said survivors could play an even larger role by acting as care givers and foster parents to children orphaned by the disease.
Their presence would also be invaluable inside Ebola treatment units, he said, to offer hope and emotional engagement to help sick people get through when the odds were really against them.
Health systems in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the three most affected countries, have been severely strained by the worst outbreak on record of the viral haemorrhagic fever.
"The Kenema meeting is a landmark. It is the first focused meeting around survivors. Survivors will came up with ideas on what they can do," said Brooks.
"I think that we should see them as people who have a critical function in public service at a time when it is really needed."
(Editing by Sophie Walker)