The dump truck that rumbled down the dirt roads of Kikwit carrying victims of the Ebola virus to a mass grave on the edge of town was a sign Tuesday that the epidemic was nearly over.
The orange truck carried bodies that otherwise would have been left to rot - and continue to spread the deadly virus - because grave diggers weren’t able to bury them fast enough.
That Zairians had consented to a mass burial was proof that a public education campaign launched by international health workers to stop the spread of the virus through better sanitation was finally working.
And in yet another sign, doctors said residents were finally calling the Red Cross to pick up the sick, rather than trying to care for them at home.
The ghoulish procession of the funeral truck drew hundreds of onlookers as it passed mud huts shaded by brilliant flowering trees, then wound along a narrow dirt road to the city’s old, overgrown cemetery.
There, a dozen Red Cross workers wearing heavy rubber boots, gloves, masks and goggles tossed seven white plastic bags containing bodies into a deep grave.
A bulldozer dumped dirt over the latest casualties of the disease that has swept through this remote city in the savanna. The death toll climbed to 102 Tuesday with the death of another Italian nun who had been caring for Ebola victims at Kikwit General Hospital.
Zairians traditionally wash and extensively handle the corpses of loved ones in preparation for burial - and handling infected corpses is a prime source of transmission of the Ebola virus.
Mass burials are alien to Zairians, but the need to quickly get bodies into the ground forced health experts to begin using the mass graves May 15.
The campaign by international health workers to improve hygiene in Kikwit and encourage residents to avoid intimate contact with the stricken seemed to be working.
Except for the funeral truck, there were few reminders of the virus on Kikwit’s streets. Women sold bread and fruit at small stands in the shade of date palms and young men lounged outside tiny shops and beer stands lining the main dirt road through the city.
“I am just taking care of myself,” said Eric Nzundu, a 24-year-old university student. “I know how to preserve myself. Don’t be in contact with those who are suffering. Don’t touch them. Be far from them.”
Doctors said such precautions appeared to have halted the spread of the disease.
“Today we are fairly sure nobody is getting infected, or that very few are getting infected,” Dr. David Heymann of the World Health Organization said at the Kikwit clinic where experts from WHO, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Pasteur Institute and other research centers are charting the epidemic.
There is no known cure for Ebola, and doctors do not know where the virus comes from. One new possibility being investigated is bats, which are being trapped in nets at night and examined at a laboratory at the Kikwit hospital.
Heymann said one of the first known victims of this epidemic lived and worked in the bat-filled forest outside Kikwit.