Aidan Hartley Aidan Hartley

Africa’s invisible epidemics

Having witnessed really frightening times, it is the level heads and human compassion that stay in the memory


‘Ah, Africa,’ the French scientist sighed contentedly. This was 1995 and all around us was an Ebola epidemic ravaging Kikwit, a village in what they now call the Democratic Republic of Congo. ‘No lawyers to sue us!’ I had just asked him why doctors in the local hospital ward had shown me Ebola victims, lying in beds next to patients suffering milder diseases. In the Kikwit outbreak, the hemorrhagic fever killed eight out of ten people infected — 245 in all. People became sick after kissing and hugging the bodies of their loved ones at their funerals. Local doctors told me that dysentery routinely claimed more Kikwit children’s lives, yet the foreigners flying in and out of the jungle strip on US military transports were gripped only by Ebola — and whether the virus could perhaps go airborne. They were directing operations in the hospital and in their laboratory I saw a line of monkeys strapped into chairs, wearing face masks attached to ventilator tubes.

In Somalia, I witnessed a measles epidemic. In the town of Baidoa, a famine was killing 400 people a day. After dark the children suffering vitamin A deficiency would stumble around blindly calling for their mothers. A chorus of hacking coughs heralded dawn, when skeletal figures on spindly legs tottered in circles holding the bodies of their kids until they flopped down in the heat. Reporters like me were trying to get a sense of numbers and so each morning we’d get on a truck that went around collecting corpses. Teams of women tenderly washed the bodies and instead of shrouds they wrapped them in their infected, dirty blankets. What I respected about the people in Baidoa was that every famine victim who died was an individual and I never saw them tossed into mass graves.

One morning I went out and saw five dead by the roadside.

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