MONROVIA (AA) – Vicdoeria Payne, 21, has been stigmatized by her local community – not for being infected with Ebola, but rather for being courageous enough to volunteer to take an experimental Ebola vaccine.
“When I came back after taking the vaccine on Feb. 3, my friends said they were giving me 21 days before coming around to see me,” Payne, visibly distressed, told The Anadolu Agency.
She was one of a handful of Liberians who volunteered to receive an experimental Ebola vaccine.
Test vaccines have been brought from a secret holding facility to Monrovia’s Redemption Hospital, where they are being administered on a volunteer basis.
Healthcare workers have screened volunteers to ensure their eligibility for the study, which aims to enlist 27,000 healthy male and female subjects over the age of 18.
Those who have fever, Ebola survivors, and pregnant or breastfeeding women were not eligible to take part in the trial.
This was not enough, however, to prevent stigmatization.
Several of those who voluntarily received the trial vaccine are now being avoided by their neighbors and members of their local communities.
“People were spreading the rumor that I had gone to take the Ebola vaccine, saying that when I came back I would spread Ebola in the community,” Payne lamented.
“But nothing happened to me. In fact, some of them are ashamed to look me in the eye because they thought I would be dead by now,” she said.
In recent months, Ebola – a contagious disease for which there is no known treatment or cure – has killed 9,177 people, mostly in West Africa, according to a Feb. 11 World Health Organization (WHO) status report.
In Liberia alone, Ebola has claimed at least 3,826 lives.
Varnie, a 33-year-old woman, decided to keep her decision to take the Ebola trial vaccine a secret.
“Two things I considered before I went for the vaccine: either I live or I die,” she told AA. “But I prefer to be one of the sacrificial lambs to help find a cure for Ebola.”
Varnie, however, has not told her family or friends, fearing that this could cause her more harm than good.
“Right now, I do not want my father to know that I took the vaccine,” she told AA.
Like many Liberians, her father believes that taking the vaccine would infect the recipient with Ebola and eventually lead to his or her death.
She hopes her compatriots will stop spreading rumors that the vaccine is making people sick and infecting their families and communities.
“I’m strong, as you can see,” Varnie told AA. “I’m not sick; I’m doing all of my housework and going places.”
She hopes that in the not-too-distant future it will be proven that the vaccine can help cure Ebola.
“Since I took the vaccine, I have prayed that it works so my name can be recorded in history that I was among those the vaccine was tested on,” said Varnie.
Many critics have blamed Liberia’s Health Ministry for failing to raise awareness about the trial vaccine, which, they say, has led to numerous misconceptions and low levels of participation in the study.
Early last week, Dr. Stephen Kennedy, head of the vaccination team in Liberia, admitted that the Health Ministry and its partners had largely ignored the media, leading to a serious gap in the public’s understanding of the vaccine trials.
Jerome Jackson, 47, has been snubbed by his friends since returning from hospital – where he took the vaccine – on Feb. 8.
“When they [members of the community] heard that I took the vaccine, they stopped coming around,” he told AA. “They thought I had Ebola.”
But Jackson has refused to keep quiet. Instead, he has engaged local community members and attempted to clarify some of the misconceptions, including those about the $40 paid to each study volunteer.
“I operate a photo studio where I earn more than $300; how can $40 save my life?” he asked. “Are they saying that our own government would collaborate with outsiders to kill its own citizens?”
In some communities, there are rumors that the $40 is intended to cover future medical complications that develop as a result of the vaccine.
Jackson insists that the sum is only intended to facilitate volunteers’ transportation back to their local communities.
He now keeps a bandage on his left arm to show that he has received the trial vaccine.
“I will not remove this bandage – even if it takes a month – because they are saying all kinds of things about us who took the vaccine,” Jackson said.
He believes his strategy will eventually pay off, at least among his friends.
“Since they have seen that nothing is happening to me, they are finally coming around one by one,” he told AA.
Jackson has even convinced his 21-year-old brother and fiancée to take the trial vaccine.
“We are strong; nothing is wrong with us,” he said, laughing. “In fact, some of those who had avoided us before are now secretly going for the vaccine.”
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