KAGADI, Uganda, Aug. 5, 2012 — -- I just emerged from the ebola ward. Inside there are three patients with confirmed ebola infection and another 15 or so who are awaiting test results.
I suited up in full protective gear, so that not an inch of skin was showing. An expert from Doctors Without Borders oversaw my suiting-up. He has worked on five ebola outbreaks and was meticulous in his care: he carefully adjusted my mask and hood to protect me from any body fluids that might spatter. It was too dangerous for my photographer-colleague Alex to come in, so I shot with a little camera which we left behind.
The ward is a typical African medical setting, dimly lit with light filtering through the windows. It is an open room, like an army barracks, broken into three sections, with interior walls about 2 feet high. The protection suits are incredibly hot. You can only work in them for about 40 minutes. More than that and you will get dehydrated. There's no way to drink water when you are wearing this suit.
I went in with Michael and Jackson, two Ugandan members of the CDC lab team. They went in to draw blood from a boy who was a suspect case. Fifteen years old, he has fever, vomiting, abdominal pain and loss of appetite. It could be ebola but is more likely an intestinal infection. He lay on a cot in the first part of the ward, sharing space with the three confirmed ebola patients. I can't imagine what was going through his head, looking over and seeing people infected with ebola. The team drew blood from his arm and routed the tube into a bag, then into a cylinder. After each step a man with a sprayer washed his hands down with bleach.
The level of care on the ward is, at best, basic. No monitors, no I.V. pumps, no blood pressure cuffs. To me, it looked like the main purpose for the ward was to remove these people from society, to protect the community from this untreatable disease.
Getting out of the suit was harder than getting in. With the removal of each layer I had to be sprayed down with bleach: apron, body suit, hood, goggles, face mask, and two pairs of gloves.
I've been in buildings in which anthrax has been released; I've tracked cholera across South America. I don't think I've been in an setting that felt more unsettling than the ebola ward.
Heading now to the village to the home of patient zero. She died of ebola. I want to meet her husband.