Specter of Inscrutable Ebola Virus Haunts Africa


The evil began when a distant relative paid an unexpected visit from the rain forest. One by one, Bernard Massika’s loved ones began to fall ill.

Massika watched the younger of his two wives lapse into a feverish coma as her skin turned a deathly blue-black. His 8-year-old daughter began vomiting and coughing up blood.

By the time the scourge lifted a month later, 10 members of his family--including all nine children--were dead.

Doctors identified the assailant as ebola, the dreaded virus that periodically emerges from the forests of Africa, killing up to 80% of its victims. The virus, which rarely spreads far because it kills so fast, is named for a river in a Congo region where the disease was first noticed by health experts in 1976.


The cold, hard facts of modern science did not convince Massika, who gave another name to his woes--vampires.

“This was not a disease,” Massika says, recalling the ebola outbreak that killed his family and at least 11 others in early 1996. “We were attacked by powerful spirits of darkness.”

More than two decades after the first documented outbreak and three years after a deadly resurgence in nearby Congo, ebola remains a disease shrouded in mystery.

Gabon is the only country known to have suffered three sizable ebola epidemics, which killed at least 100 people since 1994. Still, many people in the West African nation deny its existence.

The disease has not been seen anywhere since Gabon’s third and latest outbreak ended in February 1997, said Dr. Ray Arthur, a virologist with the World Health Organization.

Like Massika, some Gabonese blame ebola’s ghastly symptoms--massive internal bleeding, vomiting and diarrhea--on witches, ghouls and vampires.

Although it is responsible for only a fraction of the deaths caused by Africa’s more common ailments, such as malaria, dysentery and sleeping sickness, ebola has a terrifying mystique.

Some survivors never recover from the trauma of falling prey to what they believe is black magic. Others live in fear of the next outbreak.


After watching his family decimated, Massika and some other relatives were forced to flee from their village of Epassendje in northeastern Gabon. They ended up here in Makokou, a sleepy jungle town about 200 miles from Gabon’s capital, Libreville.

Massika suffered the further indignity of being ousted as chieftain of Epassendje by villagers who believed his immediate family was cursed. He was replaced by his younger brother, whose household was spared the plague.

Massika’s wife Pauline, who nearly died, has not spoken with her maternal family since the ordeal. Although her husband claims it was his traditional medicine that cured her, Pauline refuses to talk about it and will not shake hands with strangers.

“How can I believe all of this was just an accident?” Massika asks. “My enemies are working against me.”


Dr. Bertin Pambou, a Gabonese physician who conducts ebola research for Yale University, believes the intersection of traditional and modern cultures in the rain forests has provided a fertile breeding ground for the disease.

The virus may have always existed in the jungle, but mass outbreaks apparently are a recent occurrence. Traditional forest people probably died alone before infecting others.

These days, commercial hunters and loggers traipse through remote areas and return to villages that are unprepared to handle an epidemic.

One of the most common ways of contracting ebola is from touching an infected corpse. Traditional culture in many parts of Africa dictates that family members wash the cadaver of the deceased.


More contagious than AIDS but much less so than the common cold, ebola spreads quickly through contact with body fluids and kills most victims within a week. Outbreaks have a short life span because people who are infected die quickly--often before passing it on.

Experts around the world are looking for a vaccine or a cure, but both appear to be years away.

Nobody has yet been able to pinpoint ebola’s source, although some experts believe it may be carried by wild animals--possibly insects, rodents, bats. Like humans, monkeys catch and are often killed by the disease.

Pambou and other researchers trap animals and take blood and tissue samples in a quest to discover ebola’s secrets.


Massika believes the only reason he was spared is that he is a practitioner of traditional medicine and arcane lore. He says he fought magic with magic, using wild herbs to stave off the ebola attack.

“Nobody and nothing can kill me until I am prepared to die,” he boasts.

Pambou, who was once forced into a monthlong quarantine after an ebola patient vomited on his arm, believes some people may have developed an immunity against the virus or discovered natural medicines to fight it.

“It is possible that there are traditional solutions. . . . They may even work in some cases. We don’t know for sure,” he says.