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Last Updated:  Tuesday, 11 March, 2003, 14:49 GMT
My brush with Ebola

By Pascale Harter
BBC, isolation ward, Brazzaville military hospital, Congo

When a disembodied voice from behind a mask asks you how often you're vomiting, and examines your body for signs of blood beneath the skin from internal haemorrhaging, you know you've got something very bad.

Ebola ward (archive photo)
Hundreds have died of Ebola in central Africa
The gloves and goggles worn by the doctor let you know you are no longer a healthy body to be protected from illness but a living virus to be protected against.

You feel you are already a lost cause, even though you know the doctors need to be protected.

I had been feeling ill since returning from the north of Congo reporting on the current Ebola epidemic.

Ebola is one of the deadliest viruses in the world, killing up to 90% of its victims in days and few of those unfortunate enough to get it survive to tell their story.

And the initial symptoms are like almost any other illness including malaria: Tiredness, a fever and vomiting.


Whilst in the north I had asked a doctor in the village of Kalle at the epicentre of the outbreak: "How do your patients feel when they see you in that outfit?"

He was preparing to go into an isolation ward wearing a green protective suit, plastic boots, a head cap, goggles and a mask.

Two pairs of surgical gloves were taped securely to his sleeves.

As it turned out I now know exactly how patients feel on seeing such an apparition.

The answer is terrified.


Ebola is a messy, undignified death of uncontrollable vomiting, diarrhoea and bleeding.

Any contact at all with these fluids would transmit Ebola.

My having what could have been Ebola symptoms and arriving from an outbreak zone were enough to scare most of the staff here at the military hospital in Brazzaville.

After some understandable hysteria on my arrival, it was eventually decided that I should be given a malaria test.

The most junior medic to be found was forced to perform the task. He stood outside my isolation room trembling visibly.

As he pricked my finger hurriedly, I saw the sweat gathering behind his goggles.

Lonely deaths

Major illnesses usually elicit sympathy and caring but Ebola just creates fear and panic.

I've been here for five days while my blood is taken to a laboratory in Gabon to be tested for Ebola.

Although I am fine now - and over the malaria - the government cannot let me go until they have a negative result.

In the meantime I have friends to bring me water and food.

But most of the Ebola patients dying in the isolation ward in Kelle are not so lucky.

Even their families are too scared to bring them bring them water. Ebola is not only a gruesome death but a lonely one.

And Ebola victims know this as soon as they see the green-suited men in their goggles and masks.

Congolese flee Ebola scare
01 Mar 03 |  Africa
Congo Ebola outbreak confirmed
18 Feb 03 |  Africa
Gabon takes steps against Ebola
13 Feb 03 |  Africa
Congo gets 'Ebola' samples
12 Feb 03 |  Africa
Ebola and other tropical viruses
08 Feb 03 |  Medical notes

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