Background: The West African Ebola epidemic of 2013-2016 killed nearly 4,000 Sierra Leoneans and devastated health infrastructure across West Africa. Changes in health seeking behavior (HSB) during the outbreak resulted in dramatic underreporting and substantial declines in hospital presentations to public health facilities, resulting in an estimated tens of thousands of additional maternal, infant, and adult deaths per year. Sierra Leone's Kenema District, a major Ebola hotspot, is also endemic for Lassa fever (LF), another often-fatal hemorrhagic disease. Here we assess the impact of the West African Ebola epidemic on health seeking behaviors with respect to presentations to the Kenema Government Hospital (KGH) Lassa Ward, which serves as the primary health care referral center for suspected Lassa fever cases in the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone.
Methodology/principal findings: Presentation frequencies for suspected Lassa fever presenting to KGH or one of its referral centers from 2011-2019 were analyzed to consider the potential impact of the West African Ebola epidemic on presentation patterns. There was a significant decline in suspected LF cases presenting to KGH following the epidemic, and a lower percentage of subjects were admitted to the KGH Lassa Ward following the epidemic. To assess general HSB, a questionnaire was developed and administered to 200 residents from 8 villages in Kenema District. Among 194 completed interviews, 151 (78%) of respondents stated they felt hospitals were safer post-epidemic with no significant differences noted among subjects according to religious background, age, gender, or education. However, 37 (19%) subjects reported decreased attendance at hospitals since the epidemic, which suggests that trust in the healthcare system has not fully rebounded. Cost was identified as a major deterrent to seeking healthcare.
Conclusions/significance: Analysis of patient demographic data suggests that fewer individuals sought care for Lassa fever and other febrile illnesses in Kenema District after the West African Ebola epidemic. Re-establishing trust in health care services will require efforts beyond rebuilding infrastructure and require concerted efforts to rebuild the trust of local residents who may be wary of seeking healthcare post epidemic.