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Deadly ebola virus a fact of life in Gabon

A chimpanzee April 26, 1997
Web posted at: 10:41 p.m. EDT (0241 GMT)

In this story:

From Correspondent Gary Strieker

NORTHEASTERN GABON (CNN) -- The Ivindo River in northeastern Gabon runs through the middle of a vast forest, thousands of square kilometers where no one lives and few venture.

But recently this remote area has suffered the encroachments of gold miners, hunters and, most troubling of all, the deadly ebola virus.


--Jungle fever strikes in Gabon when gold mining and hunting open in a remote area movie icon(1.4MB/38 sec. QuickTime movie)

Two outbreaks of the virus last year killed 70 people here, and health officials responsible for tracking and containing such things returned recently to the village of Mayibout, site of the first outbreak.

The epidemic began when children found a dead chimpanzee and took it home to eat. Chimpanzees and gorillas are considered a delicacy here, and the find was welcomed in the village.

Edzang quote

But the animal had died from ebola fever, and it infected everyone who touched it.

"Everybody began to prepare to eat," says Dr. Samuel Edzang, director of public health for the region, "and those who had direct contact with the meat, all of them have been sick."

Of 35 people infected, 25 died

Mayibout

Within days the virus had spread to other families living nearby and ultimately infected 35 people. Twenty-five of them died.

A woman who lives in the village says no one will ever eat chimpanzee again, but it will be a difficult practice to stop, given the villagers' taste for the meat. And hunting is a time-honored tradition here.

Health authorities warned the villagers not to eat any animal they find dead, which is about all they can do under the circumstances.

Eight months after the first outbreak, the ebola virus resurfaced when a hunter living in a remote logging camp came down with the fever. Ten days after returning from the forest, he collapsed and later died.

No one knows what he did in the forest, what he might have eaten or come into contact with that gave him the virus.

One family lost 15 members to ebola

Ivindo river

But by the time the fever had run its course in the camp and surrounding villages, 60 people had been infected and 45 of them died. One family alone lost 15 members.

The obvious question is what to do about the virus, and no one is quite sure. No one knows where it comes from, or what kind of organism in the forest might shelter the virus.

It is not chimpanzees, authorities are sure. Chimps are victims of the virus, just as humans are.

Some villages have been abandoned since the outbreak, and there are those who believe that ebola has something to do with witchcraft. Others say they are not afraid, and are confident the government can control the virus.

"At any time we can have another epidemic," says Dr. Edzang. "It's very important now to be ready to fight against the ebola virus any time, anywhere it appears."

In other words, the virus is a fact of life in Gabon. Until scientists track down its source and give researchers a chance to a find a cure, the virus will continue to hide in the rainforest, waiting for another chance to strike.

 
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