Disease and Fear in Zaire


The Ebola virus, named for a river by which the first identification of it was made, is bad enough. Based on (admittedly slight) experience, 90 percent of people who get it die a horrible death from uncontrollable bleeding. It is not (based on that same experience) easy to catch. Contact with blood or bodily fluids is needed. That includes shared needles. It makes underfunded Third World hospitals reusing hypodermic needles dangerous.

The first identified outbreak of Ebola virus hemorrhagic fever occurred in Zaire in 1976, and the next two in Zaire and southern Sudan three years later. All were devastating to the small villages where they occurred. The fourth began in late March or early April in a hospital in Kikwit, Zaire, and spead through medical workers there. No small village, Kikwit has some 600,000 people.

One of the dangers is that the panic and quarantine that ensued may cause more deaths than the Ebola virus. The confirmed Ebola toll has passed the 100 mark, leaving the likelihood of considerably more cases infected but not identified.

But the damage went further. The governor of Kinshasa, the capital of some five million people nearly 300 miles to the east, declared Kikwit quarantined. Thousands of residents who fled Kikwit toward Kinshasa were stopped some 90 miles away. Many were thought to have got through by bribing soldiers. Those not sick were not a danger to anyone. Planes were grounded, effectively denying food and medicine to remote mining camps that are supplied only by plane.

This happens while Zaire, in many respects Africa's greatest country, hardly exists. Mutiny against the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko left him in a sort of internal exile, supporting one prime minister against another who was chosen by the national legislature. Zaire has hardly coped with the crisis caused by Rwanda refugees in the far east.

Ebola virus is one of a number of viruses uncovered when civilization disturbed the primal wilderness. It is frightening, but not necessarily the most dangerous of the lot. According to WHO experts, only people who are visibly ill are a danger, and principally to those taking care of them. Proper hygiene in their care is the best isolation.

The tragedy is that a society breaking down like Zaire cannot afford that standard in its hospitals.

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