Seeking the Source of Ebola

The latest Ebola crisis may yield clues about where it hides between outbreaks.

No one foresaw, back in December of 2013, that the little boy who fell ill in a village called Méliandou, in Guinea, West Africa, would be the starting point of a gruesome epidemic, one that would devastate three countries and provoke concern, fear, and argument around the planet.

No one imagined that this child’s death, after just a few days’ suffering, would be only the first of many thousands. His name was Emile Ouamouno. His symptoms were stark—intense fever, black stool, vomiting—but those could have been signs of other diseases, including malaria. Sad to say, children die of unidentified fevers and diarrheal ailments all too frequently in African villages. But soon the boy’s sister was dead too, and then his mother, his grandmother, a village midwife, and a nurse. The contagion spread through Méliandou to other villages of southern Guinea. This was almost three months before the word “Ebola” began to flicker luridly in email traffic between Guinea and the wider world.

The public health authorities based in Guinea’s capital, Conakry, and the viral disease trackers from abroad weren’t in Méliandou when Emile Ouamouno died. Had they been, and had they understood that he was the first case in an outbreak of Ebola virus disease, they might have directed some timely attention to an important unknown: How did this boy get sick? What did he do, what did he touch, what did he eat? If Ebola virus was in his body, where did it come from?

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