Early in the morning we boarded a flight operated by the World Food Programme in Conakry. This service flies humanitarian personnel to areas affected by the Ebola virus in Guinea. Our destination was Kissidougou, around 600 kms away.
Skies were clear as we flew over the stunning Guinea Forest region in the country’s south-east. But as we prepared to land on the small airstrip restored by WFP for humanitarian flights, our pilot said poor visibility meant we had to divert to Nzerekore, another 45 minutes by air. Capital of the Guinea Forest region, Nzerekore is the epicentre of the Ebola virus and where the disease is still considered to be a real threat.
Once we landed, we travelled through lush green forests to Gueckedou. Fruit and vegetable stalls line the route. The region is extremely fertile and considered the “granary” of Guinea. But paved roads end about 30 kms after Macenta, another prefecture of Guinea Forest where Ebola is very active.
The plight of patients in Gueckedou treatment centres
The final stretch to Gueckedou is difficult as dozens of loaded trucks get bogged down, blocking the only road into the town. Children and adults gather at points where cars might get stuck and with shovels, rakes and other tools, they work to free trucks and to make the roads passable for a few francs.
It takes two hours to travel between Macenta and Gueckedou. Ebola patients, suffering from exhaustion, vomiting and bleeding, have to take this same chaotic route to get to the only Ebola treatment centre in this area. Many arrive too late.
At the request of the Guinean government, WFP constructed a treatment centre in Nzerekore, managed by ALIMA (Alliance for International Medical Action) and another centre was built by the French Red Cross in Macenta. The two centres have helped in the fight against the disease and to ease the plight of patients in Nzerekore and Gueckedou.
The spread of Ebola from Meliandou
The following day we travelled to Meliandou, the village where the first case of Ebola was identified in West Africa. The town sits on a hill surrounded by thick forest. While children run and play in the streets, adults are filled with anxiety and despair. This village has become famous around the world. But not for good reasons.
Sitting on the bench outside his house, Etienne Wamouno is distraught as he recalls how his two-year-old son, Emile, now known as ‘Patient Zero’, developed the illness.
Etienne standing by his son Emile’s grave.(Photo:WFP/Vigno Houankanli)
“It all started with Emile who fell ill. I took him to the hospital and the doctor told us that it was malaria. He prescribed some medicine which he took. He was doing well, but two days later, he became sick again. He could not eat any more and he died. Four days later, his sister also died.”
Etienne became even more distressed when his pregnant wife also fell ill.
He could not deal with his burden alone so he sent his wife to her family in a nearby village. But her health did not improve and when he brought her back to Meliandou, she miscarried and then died. What they did not know was that while she was staying with her family, she had also infected her mother and sister with Ebola and they too died from the illness.
Doctors and residents of Meliandou did not realise they were being exposed to Ebola and many also fell ill and died. Among a community of nearly 400 people, 24 have perished.
WFP going door-to-door delivering food to quarantined families.(Photo:WFP/Vigno Houankanli)
Today no new cases of Ebola have been reported in Meliandou. But the town has been devastated by the disease. WFP is providing food supplies to help people recover and get them going again.