Medical Mystery: Why Did Ebola Pop Up In A Remote Mining District? : Goats and Soda Just over a week ago, officials in Sierra Leone noticed data suggesting an ominous trend: Ebola suddenly seemed to be spreading in Kono District, a land of towering mountains and muddy diamond mines.
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Medical Mystery: Why Did Ebola Pop Up In A Remote Mining District?

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Medical Mystery: Why Did Ebola Pop Up In A Remote Mining District?

Medical Mystery: Why Did Ebola Pop Up In A Remote Mining District?

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Ebola virus raging in Sierra Leone is now mainly concentrated in that country's capital. But earlier this month, there were signs a new hotspot was developing in a remote eastern district called Kono. NPR's Nurith Aizenman reports that when investigators arrived they found a shocking scene.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Kono district is a land of towering mountains and muddy diamond mines. It's right next to the region where the Ebola outbreak first started. Still, for a long time, it looked like the virus was mostly bypassing the place. Winnie Romeril is the World Health Organization's spokesperson in Sierra Leone. And she says all through the summer there were just a handful of cases in Kono.

WINNIE ROMERIL: And then in September, still only a few cases per week were reported and the same situation in October. And then suddenly in November we noticed a rise in the number of cases.

AIZENMAN: The actual figures were still fairly low - a few dozen sick people showing up at the district's only hospital. To date, the total number of confirmed cases in Kono is just over 120, but the suddenness of the rise - that was ominous.

ROMERIL: We were analyzing these figures and scratching our heads and thinking well, we need to go see what's going on.

AIZENMAN: Romeril was in a group that arrived last Saturday. Their first stop was the hospital. They found it overwhelmed with desperately sick people. Dead bodies were piling up. As for the nurses...

ROMERIL: You could see the toll that was taken on the staff. I mean, they were - they were some of the most exhausted, depressed-looking people I've ever seen.

AIZENMAN: The only good news was that the staff had enough protective suits. The government had provided those in advance. But everything else was lacking, even cups. That's a serious problem, because Ebola patients lose a lot of fluid. The key to surviving is to drink large quantities of a solution of water mixed with oral rehydration salts. It's called ORS for short.

ROMERIL: People who are so weak with the Ebola virus can't even pick up a one liter bottle. So you have to put in a small cup for them to sip out of. And they didn't have small cups. They didn't even have pitchers to make up the ORS.

AIZENMAN: The staff also hadn't gotten any training on how to set up isolation zones.

ROMERIL: So they were actually carrying people who had died of Ebola to the morgue and passing the pregnancy ward, for example. And by the time we left, there were already pregnant women dying.

AIZENMAN: Also among the dead - workers from the hospital. And it seemed likely that there were a lot more infected people out in the community. But it was hard to say for sure. Michael Indole (ph) is another investigator for the World Health Organization. And on arriving in Kono, he found out that the local teams that are supposed to check out reports of suspected Ebola patients - well, they didn't have trucks or cars.

MICHAEL INDOLE: They don't have a vehicle. They only have motorbikes. It's like - as I'm talking to you, it is still a challenge. We still do not have one vehicle for them.

AIZENMAN: Indole says even when they do manage to reach homes of sick people, because the teams are on motorbikes, they're not able to remove them. They lose precious days trying to organize ambulances.

INDOLE: They do not respond most times promptly and do not get the patients in time.

AIZENMAN: But what about all the money the international community has been pouring into Sierra Leone? How is it possible that there still aren't enough vehicles or cups? Romeril says at least one reason is that the hotspots keep shifting from one part of the country to another.

ROMERIL: The resources have been diverted to areas that seem much more needy at the moment, and then another area gets neglected. And so even when a lot of resources have come in, there are still more resources that are needed.

AIZENMAN: In Kono, at least, they're now mobilizing a rapid response. They're sending vehicles and setting up a proper treatment center that should open in as soon as two weeks. So Romeril says there's reason to hope they can stamp out this particular brushfire pretty quickly. But she says the episode is one more reminder of the need for constant vigilance. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.

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