Coffee House Spectator Health

I thought I had contracted Ebola. Life doesn’t get much scarier than that

30 July 2014

2:00 PM

30 July 2014

2:00 PM


After an all-night rainstorm in Juba I woke to see the mosquito that bit me in the dark. Now, several days later, a fever returns to me like an old friend met on the road in Africa. Malaria. I can detect the signs without even having a blood test — the suicidal depression, the shivers, the backache, the halo of fire in the brain. I know how to treat myself with the right drugs and it doesn’t scare me at all. In a couple of days I’ll be right as rain.

What scares me more is if it’s not malaria. In South Sudan I once had a fever that came with a port wine skin rash that covered my body for weeks. It foxed doctors from Nairobi to London. I had a disease unidentified by science! I was unable to walk but the temperature was low enough for me to be able to read. In one delicious stretch I lay in my bed and worked my way through all of Tolstoy. It was among the happiest times of my entire life. Conveniently, just as I finished reading, the low-grade fever evaporated, the rash blistered, I shed my skin like a python — and I felt reborn.

Recently, while driving west into the forests of Western Equatoria, we passed Maridi, Nzara and Tambura. This is country that is beautiful but truly scary for me, not because of the Lord’s Resistance Army, nor the Arrow Boys. There are ailments in this jungle that cause you to suddenly lose all muscle control, slide into paralysis and die in a day. This is the home of nodding disease — which causes children to fall asleep at the sight of food — or river epilepsy, of loa loa, of green monkey disease and the great ebola itself.

There was a day I convinced myself I had contracted ebola — and that was scary. It was in the Congo, in Kikwit, during one of the largest epidemics in the history of the disease. The ‘index case’, or original infection, was a man who worked as a charcoal burner in the forest. I visited the pit where he worked in the submarine gloom of the disappearing jungle. I spoke to the man’s family and neighbours, some of whom had become infected when they kissed and hugged his body at the funeral.


I also accompanied a South African scientist who went about in the woods bottling spiders and other insects, catching fruit bats from which he drained blood with vacuum syringes. His quest was to discover the ‘reservoir’ or source of infection. To this day the cause of ebola, a filovirus that brings on a catastrophic haemorrhagic fever in which the victim melts into a pool of blood, is a mystery.

In Kikwit there were lots of scientists. They arrived in military aircraft from the USA and set up a laboratory in the middle of the town’s hospital compound. They caught monkeys and strapped them into chairs with face masks attached to tubes along which they blew samples from dead patients. Their aim, they said, was to detect whether the ebola virus could go airborne. Obviously this scared the hell out of everybody. In the doomsday airborne scenario, an infected man could get on a plane in Kinshasa bound for New York City, and walk down Broadway sneezing the virus on the entire population.

Finally, I was able to gain access to an ebola ward myself. It was pretty scary. Around 250 people died in the Kikwit epidemic. The foreign scientists didn’t want me there but I managed to persuade a Congolese doctor to let me have a look. I was given a white suit, gloves, gumboots, a face mask and a pair of goggles — because apparently ebola might be transmitted if infected blood splashed on to the eyeballs.

Before entering the ward I had to follow the doctor through a footbath of disinfectant — as one does when entering a foot-and-mouth-free dairy farm in Africa. Inside the ward most of the beds were now empty because almost everybody had died and been put through the incinerator. There was a man in the corner lying on a bed and in a dreadful state. I have no idea why, but on the opposite bed sat a woman who looked unhappy but not very ill.

I asked, ‘What’s wrong with her?’ ‘Oh, she has an abscess,’ said the doctor. ‘Does she have ebola?’ ‘Er, no,’ replied the doctor. ‘So why is she here?’ He shrugged. It was later alleged that the foreign scientists had asked for her to be placed here. I noticed all the windows in the ward were tightly shut. It was hot and steamy and I thought about those monkeys hooked up to the face masks with the virus being blown in their faces.

All this time, hospital orderlies were wandering around the ward spraying disinfectant in the air, at each other, and over me. I felt like a spaceman in the suit and it was extremely hot. Finally, it was time to leave and we moved towards the exit, being sprayed all the way. We walked through the footbath and then into the sunshine. In my relief I pulled the face mask off and dropped it on the ground. ‘Not yet!’ exclaimed the doctor. In my panic I picked the mask up and put it back on my face — and then realised my terrible mistake. The mask might have the virus all over it!

For days, weeks, I looked at myself in the mirror, trying to see if I was beginning to show the signs of fever. It was a nightmare, and the fear wore off only after some weeks.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

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Show comments
  • Beth Mckenna

    With Ebola on the minds of so many, lots of people are buying products to have whilst travelling… read this blog to find out more-


  • woog

    ” I had a disease unidentified by science! I was unable to walk but the temperature was low enough for me to be able to read. In one delicious stretch I lay in my bed and worked my way through all of Tolstoy. It was among the happiest times of my entire life. Conveniently, just as I finished reading, the low-grade fever evaporated, the rash blistered, I shed my skin like a python — and I felt reborn.”

    You might actually have had a filovirus.

  • Picquet

    I spent a week in the ICU of a Tanzanian hospital, during which a man lay motionless in the bed opposite me (the ward contained about ten patients). On about the fifth day he had disappeared, and a doctor confided that he was particularly worried because he suspected the man to have been suffering from ebola fever; there was no way that tests could be carried out, and when the man died his relatives had taken the body away.
    A year or so later, I was handed a bad dose of malaria, and as I was semi-conscious, my driver threw me into the back of my Landrover and took me to the nearest bush clinic for an injection of quinine, ignoring my previous firm instruction that nobody was to be taken to that particular clinic as they were known to re-use their needles without much or any form of sterilisation; the nearest main road is the ‘hot corridor’ for HIV/AIDS leading from Dar-es-Salaam to Mwanza, and rates of infection are very high indeed. Spending the next few months waiting for an HIV test to mature wasn’t a great barrel of laughs, but kicking the driver around the carpark was a small consolation.

    • Terry Field

      God, who would live in Africa – leave it to the Africans – they wanted the Brits out, so they can have it – so can the Chinese.

  • First L

    What a complete f****** idiot this guy is.

    Why journalists should never be allowed near an epidemic. Trudging round, insisting on talking to the infected, failing to take even the most basic of preventative measures.

    Would have served him right if he had got Ebola.

  • JD

    In the last 38 years ebola has killed fewer than 2000 people. In the same time, influenza has killed 19 million.


    • Blindsideflanker

      500,000 people die every year from old age, it still makes allowing another killer disease into our country a really stupid idea.

      We used to have a very low incidence of HBV , but following enrichment that changed and we are getting 6,500 additional cases a year from immigration. Australia and New Zealand have introduced screening of immigrants. The W.H.O notes that though this is seen as a global health problem the British Government can’t be bothered to try to eliminate it. Probably because they can’t be bothered to control our borders.

    • Terry Field

      Remember the haemorrhagic fever that spread from the upper nile across the entire western world, killing the numerical majority, and including Persia, with the exception of the dry Arabian peninsula in the seventh century, wiping our civilisations, and ensuring the rise of the Islamic ‘faith’.
      It can happen again.
      We are not as smart as we think we are.
      Then nemesis

      • Blindsideflanker

        I did hear that the Black Death and waves of plagues that struck Europe , left the populations of Europe with a genetic resistance to the haemorrhagic fevers, bit I would rather not test the theory with Ebola.

        • Terry Field

          Yes, and the pattern of spread did not always follow the grain, the rats, supply – it went haphazardly and fast – as would infected Hoemorraghic fever sufferers have moved through the countryside.
          Islam would not have gained traction in the early century of its birth had the other civilisations not have been reduced to dysfunctional victimhood.

          • Blindsideflanker

            Indeed, it could be one of the biggest medical disasters facing us. The Medical establishment complacently and erroneously thinking that the Black Death was a plague and not a haemorrhagic fever, so not scared sh1tless at the thought of Ebola spreading, for they have mistakenly reserved that fear for bubonic plague.

            • Terry Field

              Does it kill socialists in favour of conservatives?

              • sevanclaig

                One could hope, he replied jokingly.
                And then on a serious note, he offered the answer that is likely yes, at least here in the US, where the socialists- like the commune-ists, are huddled together in urban masses incapable of and mostly unwilling to fend for themselves (well, they’ll be sure to loot a new plasma tv and some nikes) when things get ugly.
                The manner in which they routinely swap bodily fluids with most anyone, in caligula like fashion, probably doesn’t help their fate either.

            • woog

              You’re absolutely right.

          • Blindsideflanker

            – it went haphazardly and fast –

            Which also supports the haemorrhagic fever , for mediaeval transport links were slow, which would have stopped the plague, but the longer incubation of haemorrhagic fevers allowed the spread of the disease.

            • First L

              Medieval transport links were not slow. Travelling by road from Paris to Madrid might have been slow. But Venice to London by ship – one week maybe. From Paris to a suburb of Paris with a cart of flea ridden cloth? A day.

        • First L

          1. Rats were the carriers of Black Death. Not the transmitters. The transmitters were fleas. Infected rats could die in their thousands. The fleas just jumped to the next rat along. Because the rats didn’t die instantly and there was a never ending population of them as they breed like rats, the plague propagated. It was the fleas who bit humans.

          2. The plague spread across Europe because rats hopped aboard ships that were the the motorways and aeroplanes of their day. A ship could head from Venice to Genoa to Gibraltar to Oporto to Calais to London to Copenhagen in just a couple of weeks, starting with a single infected rat and ending up with a hold full of them.

          3. While rats spread by ship, they congregated in populated areas to feed on sewage and trash. Europe of the time did not have connections between populated areas, or endless surburbia. Little villages surrounded towns but were surrounded by endless fields. Rats were transported by carts of food and cloth to other places, they didn’t make their way by their own accord. So quarantining a place did work. The rats stayed put.

          The populations of Europe are by no means immune to haemorrhagic fevers. Plenty of European medics and volunteers have died fighting Ebola in Africa or from other similar diseases.

          So basically your entire post is one long list of made up stuff.

          • Blindsideflanker


            “Biologists at the University of Liverpool have discovered how the plagues of the Middle Ages have made around 10% of Europeans resistant to HIV.”

            “Around 1900, historians spread the idea that the plagues of Europe were not a directly infectious disease but were outbreaks of bubonic plague, overturning an accepted belief that had stood for 550 years. Professor Duncan and Dr Scott illustrated in their book, Return of the Black Death (2004, Wiley), that this idea was incorrect and the plagues of Europe (1347-1660) were in fact a continuing series of epidemics of a lethal, viral, haemorrhagic fever that used the CCR5 as an entry port into the immune system “

          • Blindsideflanker


            ,Sociologist Susan Scott and biologist Christopher J. Duncan claim that a hemorrhagic fever, similar to the Ebola virus, caused the Black Death.,

            ‘Bubonic plague just doesn’t make sense, they argue. The symptoms, the high mortality rate, the speed at which the disease spread, and the way the disease spread — none of it jibes with typical bubonic plague.

            Medieval accounts of symptoms don’t match the symptoms of modern-day bubonic plague, either. Accounts describe buboes covering the entire body. But today, buboes would most commonly show up in the groin area, and aren’t likely to spread all over the body. Additionally, medieval accounts mention awful odors, bruise-like splotches and disrupted nervous systems that resulted in delirium and stupor — none of this happens with modern-day bubonic plague.’

            Before you personalise comments you should check to see if people have a point, otherwise it is you who looks like the right royal chump.

          • sevanclaig

            Been some time since you wrote this, but very well done.

    • First L

      In the past 38 years Ebola has infected fewer than 3,000 people. Giving it a kill percentage of 60-90%. In the same time Flu has infected everyone on the planet, several times over. Giving it a kill percentage of under 1%.

      Ebola has not killed millions of people because it has only turned up in deepest darkest Africa before and everyone died before they could get out of deepest darkest Africa.

      It’s now in a city, in airports. Coming to wherever you are.

    • Picquet

      I expect that giving birth, the common cold, helminthic infections and the results of smoking have also caused the deaths of many thousands. The difference is the (almost) certainty of a very nasty death indeed. More perspective.

  • Holly

    Personally I do not get too worried about things like this, what I do get increasingly worried about is, IF there is a remedy for X, Y,Z, it will no longer work.

    I have taken antibiotics twice in the last twenty five years, because unless they are absolutely needed, it is better to let your own immune system build up.
    Between GP’s and patients they have contributed to putting this branch of medical progress back by decades.

    • Terry Field

      It is a virus, idiot.

      • Holly

        I never said it wasn’t.
        In fact I never said what it was, because unlike the news brigade, for all their blathering, I am not worried about it.
        I said that I am more worried about getting some VIRUS that, because of the medical profession dishing out pills, the canny little virus bods are getting the better of us.
        Apart from that, I do not come into contact with Mr H’s bodily fluids, let alone anyone from Africa or wherever.

        As for me being an idiot, well going by my rubbish memory over the last two day’s, I’ll give you that one.
        I don’t know whether it is the sudden drop in air pressure, but my head has been all over the place.
        Forgetting where I have just put stuff, scary dizzy spells waking me up, dizzy when I am sitting down, and dizzy a couple of times when walking around the supermarket.

        • First L

          You appear to have absolutely zero understanding of the differences between viruses and bacteria.

          Viruses (depending on their virulence) mutate regularly – anything from every ten years to annually to daily, regardless of any chemical obstacles in their way. Bacteria does not mutate. Bacteria evolves and will evolve around a chemical obstacle. Having a bacterial infection does not build up your immune system one iota. Only viral infections will do that and only for the virus in question and that particular strain of it at that.

          This is because Viruses hijack the bodies cells and reproduce within cells and cannot survive outside of a host body. Bacteria exist and reproduce outside of cells and can survive almost anywhere (depending on type). The body has few defences to deal with Bacteria and prior to antibiotics, most people with an infection would have to suffer an amputation or death.

          Dizziness? Two possibilities to my (non medical mind) lack of hydration or lack of sugar. Get yourself checked out for diabetes.

        • Terry Field

          Oh dear, I am sorry – I do hope that you will be well soon. Let us know your progress.]I apologise for my sharp unreasonable personal criticism.

  • Last Man Standing

    Every person coming from a high risk country should be required to have a health certificate showing that they do not have Ebola. A blood test identifies it. Otherwise there should be no access to the UK.

    • Blindsideflanker

      The British establishment are not going to inconvenience an immigrant like that, nor commercial operations making a fast buck with transport links to West Africa. Listening to the health authorities here they consider that any Ebola outbreak here would be containable, bit of a rum do if you happen to be the British citizens who got exposed to the disease, but that is a price the British establishment would be happy to have YOU pay.

    • Terry Field

      I think we should celebrate the cultural and medical difference!

    • CO Jones

      In the “high risk countries” where this disease originated, most certificates including medical certificates are easily obtainable in return for a relatively modest amount of cash.

      Preventing the entry of possible carriers into the UK by prohibiting flights from those countries is the only way to be (almost) sure that Ebola does not get here.

      • Blindsideflanker

        Quarantine is the only way to stop the spread of haemorrhagic fevers, but our Government is keeping an open border to Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

  • Blindsideflanker

    No doubt Ebola is an enrichment the British establishment will be soon be bringing us. For them to place the British people’s concerns ahead of an Ebola enriched immigrant would be considered a racist act. Not for them the small minded action like the Liberians who have closed their borders with Guinea, we still have an open border to them with flights coming into Heathrow from there.