KIKWIT, Zaire -- Sister Dinarosa Belleri, an Italian nursing nun who devoted nearly three decades to serving the poor and sick here, had an unusual funeral yesterday in the sad and dusty graveyard behind the city's cathedral.
The coffin came on a hospital gurney. The five pallbearers wore full-length green gowns, heavy plastic goggles, surgical face masks, white helmets, thick gloves and knee-high rubber boots. They nearly dropped the casket before nervously lowering it into the freshly dug grave.
Sister Dinarosa, who had died hours earlier, was one of 10 persons who lost their lives yesterday to the virus that has turned this once-sleepy city into a "hot zone" of incurable disease and agonizing death. Kikwit is the epicenter of the still spreading Ebola virus.
Doctors now say the virus appears even stronger than during its first outbreak in another Zairian village in 1976, when nearly 300 people died. The incubation period has dropped to only four days from at least seven then. And there is still no vaccine or cure.
"Most of the symptoms are the same as before," said Dr. Jean Jacques Muyembe, a professor of microbiology at the University of Kinshasa who led the team that first identified the deadly virus nearly two decades ago. "But the severity of the disease is worse here. People are dying faster."
Dr. Muyembe said Ebola already has claimed at least 55 deaths in Kikwit and 11 in four other places. Seven of the most recent victims were discovered dead in their homes in Kikwit, rather than in the hospital where an emergency team of 22 doctors has struggled to stop the killer virus before it spreads.
Citing rumors and reports reaching the doctors, Dr. Muyembe estimated that at least 30 more people infected with or dead from Ebola lie in the mud-walled huts and tin-roofed shacks that line the dusty streets of Kikwit and climb the lush surrounding hills along the Kwilu River.
Dr. Muyembe and local residents say the highly publicized quarantine on Kikwit has been so poorly enforced that people have not only fled the area on buses, bicycles and boats -- but three of the early Ebola patients even escaped the hospital. Only two have been found, one already dead.
"The quarantine was not working in the hospital," Dr. Muyembe admitted, "because the conditions were very bad." So far, the disease has not spread to Kinshasa, the capital 370 miles to the west, or other major cities in this vast nation of 42 million. But that may be a matter of time.
Photographers who entered the low-slung cluster of blue hospital buildings yesterday saw health workers wearing protective masks, gowns and gloves.
The Ebola virus literally eats away internal organs, causing a horrible death by massive bleeding from the eyes, ears and other orifices. Like AIDS, it is believed to be transmitted via bodily fluids and secretions, not casual contact.
The first known Ebola victim here was a laboratory worker identified as Kimfumu, who died April 14. He apparently contracted the disease while taking blood samples at the Kikwit hospital. But whose blood passed the virus -- and whether blood was indeed the carrier -- is unknown.
Kimfumu transmitted the virus to at least 12 others, including the doctors and nurses who twice operated on him. An Italian nun who treated him, Sister Floralba Rondi, later passed the lethal disease to four nuns who subsequently treated her. All have now died.