The 2014 Ebola outbreak has now killed more than 1,220 people in West Africa, but one of the hardest hit countries should never have been affected at all, except for one woman who claimed powers to heal the devastating disease with herbal potions, drawing Ebola victims over the border from Guinea to Sierra Leone.
Health officials in Sierra Leone said that Ebola sufferers streamed across the border to avail themselves of the woman's alleged healing services, only to spread Ebola there. The 2014 Ebola outbreak, the worst in known history, began in Guinea in late 2013.
"She was claiming to have powers to heal Ebola. Cases from Guinea were crossing into Sierra Leone for treatment," said Mohamed Vandi, a Sierra Leone medical officer to the French AFP news service.
The self-proclaimed herbal healer soon, not surprisingly, contracted Ebola herself, which claimed her life. But the Ebola virus commonly spreads from contact with corpses, especially in cultures with a tradition of touching the dead at their memorial services.
"She got infected and died," Vandi said. "During her funeral, women around the other towns got infected."
Those women who came to the eastern Sierra Leone border village of Sokoma to attend the funeral of the popular healer then carried the virus — which can gestate inside the human body for up to three weeks before an infected person shows any symptoms — back to their own towns, setting off an epidemic that has so far killed 365 people just in Sierra Leone, a tiny country whose entire population barely tops 6 million.
There have been a total of 848 cases in the country, a faster pace of infection than neighboring Guinea where the Ebola outbreak originated. Despite a population almost 4 million greater than that of Sierra Leone, Guinea has seen 394 deaths from 543 cases.
The World Health Organization has cautioned Ebola victims against seeking out "alternative" cures, which simply do not exist in reality.
"Another source of public misunderstanding, especially in affected areas, comes from rumors on social media claiming that certain products or practices can prevent or cure Ebola virus disease," the WHO said in a statement. "Decades of scientific research have failed to find a curative or preventive agent of proven safety and effectiveness in humans, though a number of promising products are currently under development."The WHO said that, in Nigeria, two people have died of Ebola after drinking salt water in the tragically misguided belief that it would make them immune to the horrific illness.