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Today in Security History: Menindor’s Funeral

On 10 April 2014, people living along the Makona River, which forms a triangle border between Guinea and Sierra Leone and Liberia, had traveled to the small riverside village of Kpondu. At least 200 mourners from both sides of the West African river gathered for the funeral of the village healer known to her patients as Menindor.

Two days earlier, Menindor had lost her battle with the Ebola virus and died. Menindor was a sage, a faith healer to villagers along the Makona, and they revered her. A tall, seemingly ageless woman with a long face and gentle smile, she kept a snake with magic powers in a chest in her small mud brick house. As sick villagers came to see her, hoping to be cured of their illnesses, she held exorcisms and prescribed medicines concocted from local plants.

In late February 2014, Menindor treated a fellow Kpondu resident, a woman continually vomiting, struck by diarrhea, and throwing up blood—until she died on 3 March. Throughout March, Menindor treated more patients who exhibited similar symptoms, until she herself fell ill during the final full week of March. Her eyes would likely become fixed in a trance-like death stare—a hallmark of Ebola infection.

Menindor’s family prepared her body for burial according to their customs. They washed her body internally and externally. They may have saved the water and reused it by pouring it over themselves—in a ceremony to bring the deceased into their own bodies. Prior to the burial, Menindor lay in display for viewing, and the mourners felt her face and embraced her. They hugged each other and wiped away tears.

At the end of the funeral, the mourners returned to their villages along the Makona in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia. A fraction of them became sick, and in turn the Ebola virus struck their family caregivers. They traveled to doctors and clinics, some outside the border triangle formed by the river, into the cities of West Africa.

Epidemiologists later estimated that a minimum of 365 cases of Ebola cases were directly attributable to Menindor’s funeral; they deemed that the ceremony was the epicenter, the single central event sparking the largest Ebola epidemic of recent times.

The number of infected stemming from a single exposure illustrates the dire consequences of a bioterrorist deploying a moderately stable viral contagion. In contrast, the four mailed letters used in the non-contagious 2001 anthrax attacks resulted in less than a tenth—22 confirmed cases—of those documented following the funeral of Menindor.

Read more about viral outbreaks and the medical staff at the front lines and their sacrifices as they educate local populations about the realities of fighting a highly contagious disease in Crisis in the Red Zone: The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History, and of the Outbreaks to Come, by Richard Preston.

Scott Decker, Ph.D., is a retired FBI agent and author of Recounting the Anthrax Attacks: Terror, the Amerithrax Task Force, and the Evolution of Forensics in the FBI.