Sister Dinarosa Belleri, an Italian nursing nun who had devoted nearly three decades to serving the poor and sick here, had an unusual funeral Sunday in the sad and dusty graveyard behind the city’s cathedral.
The coffin came on a hospital gurney. The five pallbearers wore full-length green gowns, heavy plastic goggles, surgical face masks, white helmets, thick gloves and knee-high rubber boots. They nearly dropped the casket before nervously lowering it into the freshly dug grave.
Belleri, who had died only hours earlier, was one of 10 persons who lost their lives Sunday to the feared virus that has turned this oncesleepy city into a “hot zone” of incurable disease and agonizing death. Kikwit is the epicenter of the still spreading Ebola virus.
Doctors say the virus appears even stronger than during its first outbreak in another Zairian village in 1976 when nearly 300 people died. The incubation period has dropped to only four days from at least seven then. And there still is no vaccine or cure.
“Most of the symptoms are the same as before,” said Dr. Jean Jacques Muyembe, a professor of microbiology at the University of Kinshasa who led the team that first identified the deadly virus nearly two decades ago. “But the severity of the disease is worse here. People are dying faster.”
Muyembe said Ebola already has caused 55 deaths in Kikwit and 11 in four other places. Seven of the most recent victims were discovered dead in their homes in Kikwit rather than in the hospital where an emergency team of 22 doctors has struggled to stop the killer virus before it spreads.
Citing rumors and reports reaching the doctors, Muyembe estimated that at least 30 more people infected or dead from Ebola lie in the mudwalled huts and tin-roofed shacks that line the dusty streets of Kikwit and climb the lush surrounding hills along the Kwilu River.
More worrying yet, Muyembe and other local residents say, the highly publicized quarantine on Kikwit has been so poorly enforced that people not only have fled the area on buses, bicycles and boats, but three of the early Ebola patients even escaped the hospital. Only two have been found, one already dead.
“The quarantine was not working in the hospital,” Muyembe admitted, “because the conditions were very bad.”
So far, the disease has not spread to Kinshasa, the sprawling capital 370 miles to the west, or other major cities in this vast nation of 42 million. But that may be only a matter of time.
“Many people have gone away,” said Rufin Mukoso, a high school biology teacher in Kikwit. “Many of them go to Kinshasa. The older ones go to their villages.”
Even within Kikwit, controlling the disease won’t be easy, warned Sister Sophie Pepper, a nun from a British order. “People are afraid to go to the hospital now,” she said.
Photographers who entered the low-slung cluster of blue hospital buildings Sunday saw health workers dressed like the pallbearers, with protective masks, gowns and gloves. Most of the tin-roofed wards were deserted.
Gray plastic sheeting covered the windows of the Ebola isolation ward in Pavilion 3, but the doors were wide open. More than 20 patients were lying on beds inside, and workers were mopping blood from the floor. The operator of a front-end loader was digging a trench outside for burial of the highly infectious medical waste.
Four uniformed Zairian soldiers wearing plastic gloves and carrying assault rifles soon arrived to guard the hospital gates and prevent others from entering.
Muyembe said a single doctor originally had volunteered to stay in the isolation ward to prevent others from being exposed. “After two days, he got emotionally sick and came out,” he said. “Watching the people, he could not stand it.”
The Ebola virus literally eats away internal organs, causing a horrible death by massive bleeding from the eyes, ears and other orifices. Like AIDS, it is believed to be transmitted via bodily fluids and secretions, not casual contact. But little else is known.
Indeed, Muyembe said the highpowered medical specialists and sleuths now in Zaire have had no more success finding the primary carrier of the lethal disease than he did in 1976.
The doctors similarly have failed to find a way to treat or prevent Ebola. Muyembe said they tried using plasma preserved from one of the few survivors of the first Ebola outbreak, hoping that the antibodies might lend immunity. Again, there was no success.
For now, the 11 visiting specialists from the World Health Organization in Geneva, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the Pasteur Institute in Paris and Doctors Without Borders in Belgium have set up a special task force with 11 local doctors to combat the disease.