Bakari Soumaoro carried his sick friend all the way to the hospital on his back, not realising that the man’s fever and chills were caused by one of the deadliest diseases on earth. A week after his friend died, Mr Soumaoro fell ill.
Hospital officials soon determined that both men had contracted Ebola, a disease causing severe bleeding that had never before struck this corner of West Africa. The outbreak has killed more than 90 people in Guinea and has spread to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Gambia. On Friday, it was suspected to have spread to another country, Mali.
Mr Soumaoro, a driver for aid group Plan International in Guinea, died soon after symptoms appeared. Everyone who visited him at the hospital was placed in an isolation ward.
“Fortunately after the waiting period we all tested negative, thanks be to God,” said Mamady Drame, the local director for Plan International in Macenta, 445 miles southeast of the capital, Conakry.
Ebola – a viral haemorrhagic fever – is so virulent that those who do test positive can only wait to die in a ward where they are treated by medical personnel in protective suits. The Zaire strain detected in Guinea kills up to 90 per cent of its victims. With no cure, all that can be done is to make patients as comfortable as possible as their organs begin to fail.
Guinea is among the poorest nations in the world, and lacks healthcare facilities outside Conakry. Those who have been exposed to Ebola in southern Guinea are kept in one ward. If their symptoms are confirmed as Ebola, they are moved to a second pavilion to await death.
The situation is similar in neighbouring Liberia, where health officials say the deaths of two sisters have been confirmed as Ebola. One left behind a baby and a husband who are now in isolation.
The cases have been dramatic. One man dropped dead 30 minutes after he arrived at a hospital in Liberia. Another person was taken to a church for a prayer of divine intervention. She died on Wednesday. “We need to fight to contain it,” said Liberia’s Health Minister, Walter Gwenegale.
Late on Thursday, Malian state media said three people were in quarantine and samples sent to the US for testing.
Fear has spread. Passengers in Guinea fled a bus after an elderly man vomited. In next-door Liberia, a market emptied when people falsely believed they could catch Ebola from breathing the same air as victims. In Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, cashiers at a grocery store wore rubber gloves.
In southern Guinea on Sunday, church pews will again be empty. People, fearful of shaking hands, instead make the sign of the cross. “Here it’s like time has stopped. Every day is potentially dangerous for us. And it’s only God who can save us from this disease,” said Lalla Balde, who lives in Macenta. “We don’t know what sin we have committed so that the Ebola fever has befallen us,” said another resident, Cece Lohalamou.
France, which maintains close links with its former colonies in West Africa, has told its doctors to be alert for the virus spreading to Europe. The Social Affairs Minister, Marisol Touraine, said: “The situation demands vigilance.”
The disease, which has killed 1,500 since it was first recorded in 1976 in what is now Democratic Republic of Congo, causes vomiting, diarrhoea and bleeding.