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When the doctors descended on Kikwit 2, the only hint of hygiene was a torn garbage bag on the rusting operating table that clearly had not been changed for months. There were no lights, no running water; health workers collected rainwater from a cistern or went down to the river with buckets. Conditions were perfect for breeding a plague.
And there is more bad news. Since Kimfumu perished a month ago, no one has dared enter the thatched-roof hut where he lived. Mute children and frightened neighbors stare at the stick fence and whisper, as medical students arrive to search for the dead man's family and friends. Where is the cure, a man named Mola asks. A student explains that there is no cure; the only hope is prevention, staying away from the sick, not touching the body. Mola frowns. "I don't know what to say," he says. His father has just died from the virus. "I am the one who helped him. I have already touched the body. And now you tell me I must avoid contact?"
Mola confirms a grim fact about how the disease has spread. Though the Ebola virus is not easily transmitted -- it is passed by contact with blood and body fluids -- Zairian custom requires that preparation of a body for burial must include the handling of various organs. Health officials had hoped only family members were involved in the burial; from Mola and others they learn that friends help as well, which means even more people are in peril than the doctors had realized. "We are telling people of the enormous risks involved in doing this, and offering a safe and respectful form of burial with the aid of the Red Cross," says who spokesman Thomson Prentice. When the family insists on a traditional burial, he adds, "we are trying to tell families how to do so at the lowest possible risk. But it's really a tough fight."
As dedicated as the relief effort has been, Heyman realizes that it is not enough. He consults with local officials and orders that the teams of students tracking down possible victims be doubled. He wants bicycles, so the teams can travel more quickly, and more gowns, more rubber gloves, more masks to help protect families of the sick and workers in local clinics. He continually quizzes the students, to make sure they are asking the right questions and searching for the right clues.
He knows how hard their job is; their own friends and families are shunning them. "Even the taxis will not take us," says a pretty third-year student named Isabelle Lumbwe, 23. "Our friends say we should be quarantined." But the students are undaunted. "This is going to be our work," she says. "What kind of soldier are you if you flee the battle?"