Killer Virus Strikes Zaire
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN AFRICA
KIKWIT, Zaire, is a sprawling town on the fringe of a tropical rain forest. Forty-two-year-old Gaspard Menga Kitambala, who lived outside the city, was the only Witness of Jehovah in his family. Menga was a seller of charcoal. He prepared his charcoal deep in the forest, bundled it up, and carried it on his head to Kikwit.
On January 6, 1995, he felt ill. He fell twice on his way home from the forest. When he reached his home, he said that he had a headache and a fever.
Over the next few days, his condition deteriorated. On January 12, his family took him to Kikwit General Hospital. The Witnesses in Menga’s congregation helped the family to care for him at the hospital. Sadly, his condition worsened. He began to vomit blood. Blood flowed uncontrollably from his nose and ears. On January 15, he died.
Soon others in Menga’s family who had touched his body became sick. By early March, 12 people closely related to Menga had died, including his wife and two of their six children.
By mid-April, hospital staff and others began to sicken and die in a way similar to Menga and his family. Quickly the illness spread to two other towns in the region. Clearly, outside help was needed.
Professor Muyembe, Zaire’s top virologist, went to Kikwit on May 1. He later told Awake!: “We concluded that Kikwit was suffering from two epidemics: one was diarrhea caused by bacteria, and the other was a severe hemorrhagic fever caused by a virus. Of course, we needed to confirm this diagnosis. So we collected some blood from patients and sent it to be tested at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, U.S.A.”
The CDC confirmed what Muyembe and other doctors in Zaire had already suspected. The disease was Ebola.
A Deadly Disease
The Ebola virus is ferocious. It can kill quickly. There is no vaccine against it, and there is no known treatment for its victims.
Ebola was first recognized in 1976. Named after a river in Zaire, the disease struck in southern Sudan and a short time later in northern Zaire. A smaller outbreak occurred again in 1979 in Sudan. After that, except for a few isolated cases of people dying with Ebolalike symptoms, the disease vanished for years.
So lethal is the Ebola virus that scientists who study it in Atlanta do so in a maximum-security laboratory built with a ventilation system that prevents any airborne microbe from escaping. Before entering the laboratory, scientists don protective “space suits.” They shower in disinfectant when they leave. The teams of doctors who came to Kikwit brought protective gear with them—disposable gloves and caps, goggles, and special coveralls that do not allow penetration by the virus.
In contrast, most residents of Kikwit lacked both the knowledge and the equipment to protect themselves. Others knowingly risked or lost their lives in caring for ailing loved ones. Friends and family carried the sick and the dead on their back or shoulders with no protection at all. The consequence was a terrible loss of life; the virus devastated whole families.
Containing the Outbreak
The international community responded to Kikwit’s cry for help with donations of money and medical equipment. Teams of investigators flew in from Europe, South Africa, and the United States. Their purpose in coming was twofold: first, to help contain the outbreak; and second, to discover where the virus lived between epidemics.
To help stop the epidemic, health workers made a street-by-street search to find anyone who showed symptoms of the disease. The ill were taken to the hospital, where they could be quarantined and cared for safely. Those who died were wrapped in sheets of plastic and buried swiftly.
A massive campaign was launched to provide accurate information about the disease to health-care workers and to the public at large. Part of the message strongly warned against traditional burial practices, in which families ceremonially handle and wash the dead.
Searching for the Source
Scientists wanted to find out where the virus came from. This much is known: Viruses are not free-living organisms, able to eat, drink, and multiply on their own. To survive and reproduce, they must invade and exploit the complicated machinery of living cells.
When a virus infects an animal, often the relationship is one of mutual coexistence—the animal does not kill the virus, and the virus does not kill the animal. But when a human comes in contact with the infected animal and the virus somehow passes to the human, the virus may become lethal.
Since the Ebola virus kills people and monkeys so quickly, scientists assume that the virus must survive in another organism. If health officials discover what type of organism carries the virus, then they may be able to take effective control and prevention measures to avoid future outbreaks. The unanswered question about Ebola is, Where does the virus reside between human epidemics?
To answer the question, researchers must track the virus to its source. Efforts to locate the animal reservoir following the previous outbreaks had proven unsuccessful. But the Kikwit epidemic provided a new opportunity.
Scientists assumed that the first victim of the Kikwit epidemic was Gaspard Menga. But how was he infected? If it was by some animal, what species of animal was it? Logically, the answer might be found in the forest where Menga worked. Collection teams set 350 traps in places where Menga worked to prepare his charcoal. They captured rodents, shrews, toads, lizards, snakes, mosquitoes, sand flies, ticks, bedbugs, lice, chiggers, and fleas—a total of 2,200 small animals and 15,000 insects. Scientists, wearing protective gear, killed the animals with anesthetic gas. They then sent tissue samples to the United States, where they could be screened for the virus.
Since the possible hiding places of a virus are nearly unlimited, there is no certainty that the source will be found. Dr. C. J. Peters, who heads the CDC’s special pathogens branch, said: “I don’t think the odds of us finding the reservoir of Ebola virus is more than 50-50 this go around.”
The Epidemic Fades
On August 25, the epidemic was officially declared to be over, there having been no new cases for 42 days, twice the maximum incubation period. Why had the disease not spread widely? One factor was the international medical efforts made to contain the epidemic. Another factor that cut short the epidemic was the severity of the disease itself. Because it appeared and killed so quickly and was transmitted only by close contact, it did not spread to large numbers of people.
Official records show that 315 people contracted the disease and that 244 of them died—a fatality rate of 77 percent. Ebola is quiet for the moment. In Jehovah’s new world, it will be silenced forever. (See Isaiah 33:24.) Meanwhile, people wonder, ‘Will Ebola reappear to kill again?’ Probably. But no one knows where or when.
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The Epidemic in Perspective
Ebola is a killer, yet a greater threat to Africans lies in less spectacular diseases. During the outbreak, other diseases quietly took their toll. It was reported that a few hundred miles to the east of Kikwit, 250 people were recently stricken with polio. To the northwest, a deadly strain of cholera ravaged Mali. To the south, in Angola, 30,000 people were stricken with sleeping sickness. Over a broad area of West Africa, thousands died in a meningitis epidemic. Stated The New York Times: “For Africans, the troubling question arises why none of [Africa’s] daily, deadly encounters with mostly preventable diseases hardly provokes a flicker on the screen of the world’s conscience.”
[Picture on page 24]
Scientists search for the source of the killer virus