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Archive for Thursday, October 19, 2000

Ebola outbreak traced to 1st victim

October 19, 2000

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— Esther Awete was found dead six weeks ago in her round, gray mud hut by her mother and sisters five days after she fell ill with a fever.

In keeping with custom, her body was kept in her hut for two days to allow friends and family to take part in the funeral. Awete's family and closest friends ritually bathed her body, buried her less than 30 feet from where she died and then washed their hands in a communal basin as a sign of unity.

What they did not know was that Awete's body had become a time bomb carrying the deadly Ebola virus. That was on Sept. 7. Now, her mother, three sisters and three other relatives are dead and the virus has spread across a 15-mile radius, killing 39 people and infecting as many as 63 others.

Ebola is transmitted through contact with bodily fluids, such as mucus, saliva and blood, and can be passed through a simple handshake. Four days after exposure, flu-like symptoms set in, followed by bloody diarrhea and vomiting. Ten to 15 days later, the victims "bleed out" through the nose, mouth and eyes. Blood and other bodily fluids also begin seeping through the skin, producing painful blisters.

How Awete so far the first person known to have contracted Ebola in Uganda became infected is a mystery. In fact, researchers have no idea where the virus lives in between outbreaks, which are often years and hundreds of miles apart. While they know it resides in a host animal or insect that it does not kill, they have not identified the host.

One of Awete's two children, a 9-month-old boy, died of Ebola within days of her funeral, although her 8-year-old son who did not take part in the funeral has so far survived.

Awete, 36, lived with her mother and sisters in a small compound of six thatched huts and a dilapidated house surrounded by banana trees and rows of corn. She made her living selling home-brewed cassava beer and corn she ground by hand inside her 15-foot wide, windowless hut.

Kabede Opong is 3 miles from Gulu, a town of 150,000 about 225 miles north of the capital Kampala. People here do not eat wild animals, suspected as the source of some past Ebola outbreaks, and she did nothing unusual before she died, except for a trip to another village to get cassava leaves for brewing.

At first, neighbors thought Awete died of dysentery, cholera or any of a number of illnesses common to the area.

"People had fears after the second victim," said Justin Okot, a police officer who lived in the compound next to Awete. "It was after the eighth victim, that's when we suspected this is a new disease."

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