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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 July, 2003, 14:51 GMT 15:51 UK
Congo's Ebola orphans
By Pascale Harter
BBC Crossing Continents correspondent

An outbreak of Ebola in Congo earlier this year has left a village without a single adult inhabitant.

The outbreak, which raged from February to the end of May in the region of Cuvette West, near the border with Gabon, killed 123 people.

The people of Congo's Cuvette West region call themselves, "les enfants oubliés du Congo", the forgotten children of Congo.

Nowhere is that more true than in the village of Ndjoukou, where the deadly Ebola virus has left only a population of orphans.

No cure

Ebola kills up to 90% of its victims, causing vomiting, diarrhoea and internal bleeding. Any of these fluids can transmit Ebola and there is no cure or vaccine.

The disease is often transmitted during funeral preparations in Congo which traditionally require relatives and friends to wash and kiss the dead body.

According to local belief, if the dead are not properly buried they will not go to the afterworld but will remain to haunt the living.

But children under the age of 15 are sometimes forbidden from taking part in this ritual. Health workers say this is what saved the lives of more than 20 children in the village of Ndjoukou.

An emergency team of Ebola specialists sent by the World Health Organisation to contain the outbreak in February this year carried out many burials.


Instead of a typical Congolese burial with vast numbers of mourners singing and drinking, the World Health Organisation (WHO) Ebola funerals were deserted and pitiful.

Plywood coffins were carried through the village by Red Cross workers dressed in full protective clothing, masks and goggles.

Lime was scattered into the graves to dissolve the bodies and the Red Cross workers sprayed down with industrial disinfectant afterwards, to avoid contamination.

The number of fresh, unmarked graves multiplied daily during the height of the outbreak in February and March.

The outbreak in Cuvette West now seems to be over, but Dr Pierre Formenty, an Ebola specialist who led the WHO team in Cuvette West, remains cautious.

He is confident that the outbreak has been contained by restricting travel between villages and the adoption of barrier nursing techniques.

However, he worries that neighbouring villages which were not affected in this outbreak still perceive Ebola as a problem which does not affect them.

This is a dangerous attitude in Cuvette, where the gorilla and monkey population sporadically catch Ebola and could find their way into the human food chain, sparking a fresh Ebola outbreak.

Normality restored

For this reason the WHO returned to the region in June, touring the villages showing videos about how Ebola is spread and how it can be contained.

To signal the return to normality they organised football matches. During the outbreak schools and churches were closed and sport was forbidden as people did not want to touch one another.

On the surface life may have returned to normal in Cuvette West but deep scars remain.

Many people have lost friends and family in the outbreak. The village of Ndjoukou is now deserted.

The orphans of Ndjoukou village are being housed together in the nearby town of Kelle. The government is discussing how to get them back into school and living with relatives.

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 10 July, 2003 at 1100 BST.

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