The Plague That Wasn't

CYRIL LAHANA DIDN'T GET TO KISS HIS dying wife, Marilyn, goodbye last week. He squeezed her toe instead, to let her know he was there. She lay in a Johannesburg hospital, bleeding to death from the deadly African virus Ebola, infected by a doctor who'd been medevaced from the jungles of Gabon into the clinic where she worked as a nurse. The doctor turned out to be one of the 20 percent of Ebola victims who survive; Marilyn was not. "A lot of our relations said they were too frightened of us to even come to the funeral," Cyril said. "I don't believe it. It's not an airborne disease; you don't get it by shaking hands." By the time the braver mourners gathered for Marilyn's memorial service last Friday, the virus's 21-day incubation period had elapsed. No one else had caught it.

The news last week wasn't that Ebola had jumped a national boundary and spread into South Africa (and, the unspoken fear, into a white population for the first time). The news was that Ebola had done all those things, and then stopped. Medical experts have always assumed that victims of the virus sicken and die too quickly to get on an airplane and take it somewhere else. That has turned out to be wrong; the virus can travel. To that extent, Richard Preston's best-seller "The Hot Zone" was not too farfetched in its account of an outbreak among experimental monkeys brought from Africa to an army lab near Washington, D.C. But the fear that Ebola could then spread to everyone in the surrounding area has proved unfounded. Scientists now believe that unless you ate those monkeys, or shared needles with them, you ran virtually no risk of catching the disease. In fact, Ebola is so virulent that even a major outbreak burns itself out quite quickly, killing most of the hosts in the immediate neighborhood before it can spread much farther.

French and American scientists in Cote d'Ivoire may be close to solving the mystery of where, exactly, Ebola comes from. In the towering Tai National Forest preserve near the Liberian border, they've zeroed in on a patch of jungle less than 20 square miles in size. Atop trees more than a hundred feet high, they've slung a network of planks and cat's cradles, observation posts and traps, where scientists are catching small animals and killing them. On the jungle floor, beneath the dense canopy of vegetation that keeps out the sun, a series of cinder-block huts serve as makeshift dissecting rooms.

Sweating profusely in their scrubs, cloth masks and plastic visors, scientists perform autopsies on the creatures they've trapped. They suspect that bats or other small mammals may be the natural host and carrier. Chimpanzees have been dying in that area regularly, possibly because they're getting Ebola from their natural prey, the red colobus monkey. In the vicinity of the Tai rain forest, humans occasionally contract the disease, too; monkey is a local delicacy.

Ebola's gruesome symptoms--the massive internal hemorrhaging, which sends blood pouring out of every orifice-have given it more power to frighten than it really deserves. Only 1,400 Ebola deaths have been reported by the World Health Organization in Africa in a couple of decades--far fewer than the number of new HIV cases reported in a single day on that continent. The problem is, poor countries can hardly hope to institute the sound medical practices and sterile conditions that can stop Ebola. In Gabon, the disease has been spreading rapidly in poorly equipped rural hospitals. When 18 people died in Gabon's Booue region in February and 14 more in October, the Gabonese government officially blamed hepatitis. Three new cases showed up in the capital of Libreville last Thursday. The government responded by confiscating important medical samples from WHO researchers. In the end, scientific discovery can't stop the Ebola virus alone. How people behave when there's an outbreak makes an even bigger difference.