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Novel About First Ebola Outbreak Puts Focus on People, Not Terror

July 3, 1995

BIG PINEY, Wyo. (AP) _ More than a month after the 1976 Ebola virus outbreak in Zaire’s rain forest, scientists couldn’t even get to the scene.

Then Dr. William Close, about to leave Zaire after 11 years as physician to the country’s president, overheard two fellow airline passengers talking about the epidemic.

Those passengers _ both doctors from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta _ recruited Close to use his influence to help fight that first Ebola epidemic that went on to kill 400 people.

Now that the virus has risen again, nearing 300 dead so far this year, Close has come out with the novel ``Ebola,″ based on his experience.

But Close said his book _ researched with the help of his actress daughter Glenn Close _ differs from other novels and movies about deadly viruses because it is not designed to instill terror.

``It’s the story of people, not a virus,″ said the 71-year-old Close, who left Zaire when the outbreak was contained later in 1976 and now runs a family clinic in this small town in western Wyoming.

While the subject of a disease that kills by causing massive internal bleeding is at times gruesome, Close’s novel focuses on the pain of families separated by quarantines and science’s vague role in combating the epidemic.

Close was based miles from the center of the epidemic, but he was able to use his influence with the president to arrange transport for doctors to the scene and provide them with much-needed, hard-to-get supplies.

Although Close takes the liberties of a novelist by using composite characters and inventing some dialogue, he includes the actual letters of a Belgian nun _ known in the book as Sister Vero _ who ran the Yambuku clinic that was the source of the outbreak.

Close, who first went to Zaire in 1960 as a missionary doctor, pins most of the blame in the book on his boss of 11 years _ Zaire President Sese Mobutu. It was Mobutu, Close wrote, who created the chaotic hell that became a fertile ground for epidemics.

He said Zaire’s collapse delayed government reaction to the outbreak and those on the scene have said improper re-use of syringes spread the virus.

Through Sister Vero’s daily letters describing the outbreak, Close wrote: ``The scientists still do not know where the virus came from, but we are all sure that the barricading of the villages ordered by the chiefs was the main reason the epidemic was stopped. I wonder who will take credit for this.″

In another letter, the nun writes: ``This morning I passed a black stool. I know that a week from today I will be dead.″

Three Belgian nuns, a Belgian priest and many more African mission workers died at Yambuku.

Dr. Margaretha Isaacson, a South African epidemiologist who spent weeks at the clinic, said of the novel, ``I think it’s a lovely story. It’s very sensitive.″

``We were all so busy that I think we overlooked many things, especially the fear,″ she said. ``We were also subject to fear, but we could run away. The nuns had to cope with the aftermath.″

Close and his daughter Glenn interviewed survivors and read letters. He has a photo album of those involved, including the mission workers and nuns who died.

Close, who this year served as a consultant to the CDC on the latest outbreak, hopes his novel may someday be made into a movie with his daughter in it.

``She has an abiding interest in the subject and the people,″ he said.

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