MELIANDOU, Guinea (AP) — When 2-year-old Emile Ouamouno caught a fever, started vomiting, passed blood in his stool and died two days later, nobody knew why.
Nor did anyone really ask. Life is unforgiving in this part of the world, and people often lose their children to cholera, malaria, measles, typhoid, Lassa fever and a host of other illnesses that have no name.
Now Emile is widely recognized by researchers as Patient Zero, the first person to have died in the latest Ebola outbreak back on December 28 last year. And Meliandou, a small village at the top of a forested hill reached by a rutted red earth track, is notorious as the birthplace and crucible of the most deadly incarnation of the virus to date.
Today villagers here are in debt, stigmatized, hungry and still angry and deeply suspicious about who or what brought the disease that has devastated their lives. It is a question scientists have yet to answer conclusively, although they have come to Meliandou to test great apes and bats as possible sources.
In the meantime, Ebola has left Emile’s grandfather, 85-year-old Kissy Dembadouno, without hope. Dembadouno has locked the room in his house where the child died.
“Eight people died in that room. It must remain closed,” he said. “All that is left for me is to wonder why God gives me any more days on this Earth.”
Meliandou is a village of about 400 people — down from 600 last year, after dozens of young men abandoned it in the belief that the Ouamouno family or the entire village was cursed, according to the village chief. The village doctor, Augustin Mamadouno, was among the first to flee, and the clinic is shuttered and shunned as a place of death, not healing.
Those left here are gaunt, skin stretched tightly over their bones, with the only false signs of fat being the cruelly bloated stomachs of malnourished children. Families crowd into two-roomed houses built from home-made mud bricks. Their “kitchens” are open fires outside marked by three blackened stones.
Etienne Ouamouno, Emile’s father, hugs his arms to his chest, as if for comfort, when he talks about the many deaths in his family, especially that of his only son.
“I was so traumatized by the deaths,” said Ouamouno. (pronounced Wah-moo-noh) “I think we still are.”
Like most of the villagers, he’s also broke. (read more)