MACENTA — Just a few months ago, people would queue outside the shop of Jean Segbé Bavogui, 41, a tailor in Banizé, a neighborhood outside the Guinea town of Macenta. But the small workshop is now empty. Bavogui hasn't seen any clients or received any orders for over a month. Even the well outside his door where his neighbors used to collect water has been deserted. This is all because Bavogui is an Ebola survivor, which makes him a damned man in the eyes of his community.
Bavogui was infected by his wife Jeanne, becoming sick on Sept. 28 just as his wife was being released from the hospital — cured. As soon as the first symptoms appeared, he rushed to the treatment center in Guéckédou, which is run by Doctors Without Borders, before going through the living hell that the disease creates for patients: vomiting, diarrhea, fever and bleeding.
"I thought I was going to die," he says. "Three other patients in my room passed away. I wanted to call my brother, who was taking care of my children, to tell them goodbye."
The tailor is among the lucky ones. Between 50% and 80% of those infected die from the virus — 1,192 patients of the 1,971 infected since the beginning of the outbreak in March, according to the Guinean Health Ministry. Doctors declared Bavogui "healthy" Oct. 5 and gave him a certificate to confirm he was cured and carried an immunity against the virus.
An Ebola treatment center — Photo: CDC Global
When he returned home to his wife with his "release certificate," the neighbors had moved away. Other people in the neighborhood now greet him only from a distance, when they don't turn away from him entirely. Today, the tailor works with his wife at a nursery where Ebola patients send their children. Like him, a handful of survivors participate in Ebola-related humanitarian aid work.
A double hell
"Even with the certificate, I see mothers, cured, forced to leave their homes with their children, thrown out by their own husbands who, when they have another wife and other children, don't want to take any risks," explains Dr. Abdul Fadiya, who works for UNICEF.
In the region, where the epidemic started in March 2014, almost 80% of the population is illiterate. And for months, people in villages have been saying that nobody ever comes out alive from treatment centers. The authorities accuse community leaders of spreading the worst rumors about the disease.
"If you tell these people that coal is white, they'll say it's white," says Sékou, a teacher and a cured patient himself. "If you tell them to attack, they'll attack. So when somebody who was infected comes back, if the village leader doesn't help that person, they don't belong there anymore."
It doesn't help that survivors appear ravaged. In the vast majority of cases, patients return weakened, exhausted, leaner and in pain. "In Balisia, a 13-year-old boy was cured but remained so weak that his mother wasn't sure he had recovered," explains pastor Jérémy Boré. "I told her that his fatigue was normal and that he should be well fed and eat fruits." A few days later, the boy was able to go outside and play soccer with his friends.
Curing patients is no longer enough. Overwhelmed by the urgency to take care of the sick, aid organizations have had to learn to handle the return of cured patients after their communities reject them. UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders or the Red Cross now allocate means especially for this mission. The World Food Programme gives supplies of rice, oil, salt and lentils to villages that have had at least five cases of Ebola.
The treatment center in Guéckédou now provides Ebola survivors with hotel rooms and meals. It was also necessary to raise awareness among bus drivers to prevent cured patients from being barred from public transport. "But in bush taxis, other passengers refuse to travel with them, so they have to pay alone for the journey, and it's too expensive," says Pascal Piguet, a Doctors Without Borders official in Guéckédou.
Is relapse possible?
Over the past few days, the return of cured Ebola patients has been dramatically questioned. A woman officially declared "healthy" was released from the treatment center and transported back to her village in Djomba Koidou. But a few days later, new symptoms appeared: She was very tired, which can be easily explained, and her gums were bleeding. The villagers instantly suspected Ebola. The Guinean Red Cross came to get her and, after going through more tests, she was once again declared infected with the virus. She died on Nov. 16. Organizations that were visiting the village the same day had to flee for fear that the population might take them hostage.
Photo: CDC Global
This case, the first suspected relapse, is yet another worry for authorities. Until now, the scientific community has claimed that a patient cured from Ebola was immune to the disease and no longer contagious. "It's an exceptional case, and we have to go through the woman's whole file once again," says Saverio Bellizzi, a doctor who specializes in epidemiology for Doctors Without Borders in Macenta. "The virus' location could be out of the ordinary — for example, in a part of the brain more protected against antibodies."
The virus is known for surviving longer in certain areas of the body — testicles, for example — and sperm can still carry it two or three months after a patient is cured. A mistake during the woman's test could also explain the result, but the laboratory that did it in Guéckédou has ruled out that possibility.
"For the first time, we have a large number of Ebola survivors and, more importantly, we are still faced with an active epidemic," says Professor Jean-François Delfraissy, a French immunologist. "We still have a lot to learn. We will be able to study when and how antibodies appear and are active. Cured patients are not a homogenous population. So, did that woman die of the first infection, or was she infected again after she went back home?"
The news, which has been kept quiet, could be a bombshell and make it more difficult for populations to accept the return of survivors. Until the results of the investigation are complete, the rule still stands: In 99.9% of cases, those cured are not infectious and are immune to the virus.
With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.
CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.
Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.
It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.
Abundant sunshine, low temperatures
The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.
Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.
It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.
Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park
Chinese want to expand
The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.
The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.
The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.
The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.
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