One of the first to die was Esther Owete. Sometime in early September, the 36-year-old from Kabedo-Opong, in northern Uganda, began complaining of "a coldness in her body," remembers her brother Richard Oyet, standing outside her mud-and-thatch hut. "Then she said she had pains in the muscles in her legs." Owete's chest began hurting. She became feverish and vomited blood. "We thought it was malaria," says a neighbor, Justin Okot. At a clinic in the nearby town of Gulu, Owete was injected with the antimalarial chloroquine and sent home. "She didn't even last 24 hours," says Okot. "We didn't understand that someone could die that quickly. We began calling this thing gemo, which in [the local language] Luo is a type of ghost or evil spirit. No one knows about it, but it comes and takes you in the night."
Ugandan health officials suspected, and tests in South Africa two weeks ago confirmed, that this ghost was real and goes by the name Ebola. A lethal virus first identified in northern Congo in 1976, Ebola attacks almost everything in the body except bone, destroying the immune system in fast-forward and causing organs to melt down, hemorrhage and then bleed out through the body's orifices. The period between infection and the onset of sickness is three to 14 days. Death follows within a fortnight. Ebola-Zaire, the first strain identified, kills 90% of those infected. The strain that hit Uganda is called Ebola-Sudan; it struck twice in Sudan in the late 1970s and disappeared until this latest outbreak. It kills roughly 50% of those infected. Ebola seems to jump species, can mutate, and occurs regularly every few years in areas where civilization butts up against nature. "Why here? Why now? Nobody knows," says Dr. Guenael Rodier, director of communicable disease surveillance and response at the World Health Organization and a veteran of five previous outbreaks. There is no known cure.
Experts say they cannot pinpoint the first infection in this outbreak until the virus is contained. But if Esther Owete was the first case, then ground zero is her mud hut, now boarded up. There, minutes after her death, according to neighbors, Owete's distraught mother cried out for her grandson, Owete's one-year-old son Sam, to "suck your mother's last milk so you too can die. There is no one here to look after you now." He survived just four days. The Ebola was really moving by then, rushing through the family as members cared for their dying relatives. Owete's mother died Oct. 1, and three sisters and a nephew soon followed. Seven people in just over three weeks. "One died in that hut, my mother in there, one over there, the kid in there," says brother Richard, 35, making his way around the tiny village. "There is nothing left, no one to look after me. The pain is too difficult to tell."