Virologists call it the “hot zone” — nature’s version of a nuclear ground zero, the centre of an onslaught by one of the most deadly biological agents ever known to humankind.
Kailahun, a poor but resourceful trading post like any other in Sierra Leone until a few short months ago, has found itself at the epicentre of the worst-ever outbreak of the feared Ebola virus.
No one gets in and no one leaves the eastern districts of Kailahun and neighbouring Kenema without special government dispensation, as part of an emergency quarantine.
“You cannot mess about here: this virus will kill you. One mistake, one wrong move, and you’re dead — that’s it,” a senior aid worker in Kailahun tells AFP.
The death toll from an Ebola outbreak that began at the start of the year stands at 1,145 in four afflicted west African countries: Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria.
Kailahun, the traditional home of around 30,000 mainly Mende tribespeople, and Kenema account for the lion’s share of Sierra Leone’s 810 cases and 384 deaths.
Getting there from the capital Freetown involves a drive of seven to 10 hours, depending on the weather and the mood of the police and soldiers at nine checkpoints. [eap_ad_1] A black-topped highway bordered by palm trees and flat, endless savannah eventually gives way to a treacherous mud track lined by crocodile-infested swampland, dense forests of African teak and swifts darting between the Khaya trees.
Here the security is suddenly less laid-back.
Police bark questions at each traveller, demanding proof of accreditation to go further. At three of the posts, people are made to wash their hands in chlorine and have their temperatures taken.
“We are so sad because our brothers and sisters are dying, so many of them,” says Ahamadou, a police guard at a post on the border between Kenema and Kailahun districts.
“We need the world to be aware that we need a vaccine. That is the only thing that is going to stop this.”
There is no evidence to suggest that this is true.
Ebola is one of the most deadly and contagious pathogens known to man, and no proven cure or vaccine clinically trialled on humans exists.