The death from childbirth of a woman named Time magazine "Person of the Year" in 2014 for her work fighting Ebola in Liberia is being investigated after reports surfaced that health workers were afraid to treat her, the country's health ministry said Wednesday.
Ebola survivor Salomé Karwah died last week four days after suffering complications from giving birth by cesarean section in a major hospital, according to the ministry's chief medical officer, Francis Kateh.
Josephine Manley, Karwah's sister, told Time that they rushed her back to hospital after she lapsed into convulsions following the birth, but said staff refused to touch her because she had contracted the deadly virus in late 2014.
"It is tragic that one of our heroes, who survived Ebola, died from childbirth in a hospital," Kateh told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Liberia's capital, Monrovia.
"We are taking the death very seriously," he said, adding that the authorities were investigating whether staff had refused to treat Karwah.
Karwah, who worked as a nursing assistant after recovering from the virus, was one of five people featured on the Time magazine cover for their work battling Ebola.
Thousands of victims
Liberia was hit hardest by the world's worst outbreak of Ebola, losing more than 4,800 people in an epidemic that killed about 11,300 people across Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone between 2013 and 2016.
Many survivors have been shunned by their families, communities and even health workers.
The virus can lie dormant and hide in parts of the body such as the eyes and testicles long after leaving the bloodstream — raising questions about whether it can ever be beaten, with West Africa's 17,000 survivors acting as a potential human reservoir.
While health experts say the risk of Ebola re-emerging in survivors and being transmitted to others is low, some fear that the stigma surrounding the virus could lead to further preventable deaths of survivors in the three affected countries.
"Emergencies like these create lasting effects, partly because they can be so destructive to the social fabric of a country or community," said Richard Mallett, research officer at the Overseas Development Institute, a U.K.-based think tank.
The Alliance for International Medical Action (ALIMA), a medical charity, said many Ebola survivors were struggling to access health care in West Africa, but not as a result of being stigmatized by health workers.
"Many survivors lost their jobs, or their spouse, and can no longer afford health care for themselves or their family," said Ivonne Loua, head of ALIMA's survivor care program in Guinea.