The Congo—and the world—first learned about Ebola in 1976, when a mystery illness emerged in the northern village of Yambuku. Jean-Jacques Muyembe, then the country’s only virologist, collected blood samples from some of the first patients and carried them back to Kinshasa in delicate test tubes, which bounced on his lap as he trundled down undulating roads. From those samples, which were shipped to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, scientists identified the virus. It took the name Ebola from a river near Yambuku. And, having been discovered, it largely vanished for almost 20 years.
In 1995, it reemerged in Kikwit, about 500 miles to the southwest. The first victim was 35-year-old Gaspard Menga, who worked in the surrounding forest raising crops and making charcoal. In Kikongo, the predominant local dialect, his surname means “blood.” He checked into Kikwit General Hospital in January and died from what doctors took to be shigellosis—a diarrheal disease caused by bacteria. It was only in May, after the simmering outbreak had flared into something disastrous, after wards had filled with screams and vomit, after graves had filled with bodies, after Muyembe had arrived on the scene and again sent samples abroad for testing, that everyone realized Ebola was back. By the time the epidemic abated, 317 people had been infected and 245 had died. The horrors of Kikwit, documented by foreign journalists, catapulted Ebola into international infamy. Since then, Ebola has returned to the Congo on six more occasions; the most recent outbreak, which began in Bikoro and then spread to Mbandaka, a provincial capital, is still ongoing at the time of this writing.
Unlike airborne viruses such as influenza, Ebola spreads only through contact with infected bodily fluids. Even so, it is capable of incredible devastation, as West Africa learned in 2014, when, in the largest outbreak to date, more than 28,000 people were infected and upwards of 11,000 died. Despite the relative difficulty of transmission, Ebola still shut down health systems, crushed economies, and fomented fear. With each outbreak, it reveals the vulnerabilities in our infrastructure and our psyches that a more contagious pathogen might one day exploit.