I’ve been collecting links on the Ebola outbreak, because I’m morbid like that. This story is
scary long enough to deserve its own post. Jeffrey E. Stern, in Vanity Fair:
… Ebola is one of the deadliest viruses known to medical science, with no specific cure and mortality rates of up to 90 percent. The Ebola epidemic now raging in West Africa is the worst one in history. It has decimated Meliandou and moved far beyond. But the mystery today is not how the epidemic began—it is why a concerted effort by an army of international experts was unable to stop it. Part of the answer is the chameleon-like character the virus displays in this part of the world. An even larger part lies in the international response itself. It was rapid and comprehensive—exactly what you would hope. But there was an unexpected reaction that undermined everything the experts sought to achieve—and at the same time fooled many of them into thinking they had succeeded in their aims. Eventually they understood the truth. By then it was too late…
When Ebola strikes, it kills quickly, but it can take up to three weeks to incubate, and usually around 10 days. The period is long enough that contact with a possible source may have been forgotten, and long enough for infected people to travel without symptoms. And even if you tested for Ebola—which nobody in Guinea had the capacity to do—you wouldn’t find it during the incubation period: Ebola can’t be detected in the blood until symptoms show. An epidemic can start slowly and go unnoticed for weeks. This has never been much of an issue before, because Ebola tends not to find its way into large population centers, or places where people are very mobile. This time would be different.
On January 24, more than a month after the first infection, Jean Claude Kpoghomou, a doctor in the town of Tekolo, called a superior to report on something strange happening in a village under his jurisdiction. Three patients had died in the span of two days, he said. All of them came from the same village, a place called Meliandou. The symptoms looked like cholera: diarrhea, vomiting, extreme dehydration. Cholera outbreaks were not uncommon in Guinea. An especially devastating outbreak had occurred just two years earlier, and Meliandou had even been one of the villages targeted for a public-health education campaign. A big pictographic billboard was installed at the entrance to the village, with explicit instructions for the mostly illiterate villagers about how to avoid contaminating the water supply…
Meanwhile, the virus had slipped out of the village. When the grandmother of the infant victim fell sick, she decided that the way the villagers were approaching the illness—summoning a shaman to brandish his fetishes and work his spells—was not satisfactory. The grandmother had a friend in Guéckédou who was a nurse, and when the grandmother’s symptoms began to worsen, she went to see what real medicine could do for her. The nurse tried to help, but he had no idea what he was dealing with. The grandmother went back to Meliandou, where she died.
In early February, the nurse himself developed a fever. Now the virus was in Guéckédou, a bustling trading hub where people converge from Liberia and Sierra Leone. When the nurse’s condition deteriorated, he sought help from a friend who was a doctor in Macenta, in the next prefecture over. The nurse stayed just one night in Macenta—sleeping in the doctor’s own house, sharing a room with the doctor’s own son—and died the next day, February 10, in the waiting room of the local hospital’s lab. The doctor in Macenta was shocked. He didn’t know what he had just witnessed, but it was unlike anything he had seen before, and he immediately sent an alert to the regional director of health in Nzérékoré. Then the doctor developed a fever. He set off for the capital, where he hoped someone might have answers. But along the road—a jolting, treacherous passage lined by burned-out cars and always a few freshly rolled tractor-trailers spilling timber—the doctor died. His body was sent to Kissidougou, a city of more than 100,000, where a funeral was held. Before long, Kissidougou was experiencing an outbreak of whatever it was that had killed the doctor… Read more