By Jeffrey E. Stern, Vanity Fair
DON’T TOUCH Health workers in protective gear prepare to see patients at the Ebola-treatment center in the courtyard of Donka hospital, in Conakry, Guinea.
Hell in the Hot Zone
As the Ebola epidemic rages, two questions have emerged: How did the deadly virus escape detection for three months? And why has a massive international effort failed to contain it? Traveling to Meliandou, a remote Guinean village and the likely home of Patient Zero, Jeffrey E. Stern tracks the virus’s path—and the psychological contagion that is still feeding the worst Ebola outbreak in history.
The tiny village of Meliandou, nestled in the Forest Region of southern Guinea, has begun to see flashes of the outside world. A Messi soccer jersey, three sizes too big, on a little boy. A down parka on an old man in the heavy heat, worn as a robe of distinction. You might even come across the occasional teenager on a cell phone, cupping the device from the sun as if lighting a cigarette in the wind. But mostly it is a place from the past—a rutted dirt path between thatch-roofed shacks, on a hillside sloping up toward the forest. It is home to just a few hundred people. Chickens and goats wander freely. Local shamans are the first responders when illness strikes.
In Meliandou, bushmeat has long been a common source of food. As elsewhere in West Africa, hunters wade into the forest and come back with whatever they can find. Once, not so long ago, what they found was a rich and varied bounty: monkeys, antelope, squirrels. That has changed; the whole eco-system has re-arranged itself. After civil wars broke out in Liberia and Sierra Leone, refugees poured over the borders, and the population grew, even as a power struggle in Guinea took an economic toll. People started looking to the rich resource all around them: trees. Trees were felled to make way for farms or burned down for charcoal. Endless truckloads of timber were shipped to construction companies. The forest suffered another trauma as mining interests—the Anglo-Australian Rio Tinto, the omnipresent Chinese—pushed aggressively to exploit the country’s natural resources (bauxite mostly). As the forests disappeared, so too did the buffer separating humans from animals—and from the pathogens that animals harbor.