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How a single funeral may have spread Ebola across Sierra Leone

A staffer for Doctors Without Borders (MSF), suits up in protective clothing before entering a high-risk area of the MSF Ebola treatment center on August 21, 2014 near Monrovia, Liberia.
A staffer for Doctors Without Borders (MSF), suits up in protective clothing before entering a high-risk area of the MSF Ebola treatment center on August 21, 2014 near Monrovia, Liberia.
John Moore

One of the major steps of controlling an epidemic such as Ebola is to track down the chain of human transmission — and perhaps in doing so, find lessons to better protect people now and in the future.

AFP reports that a health official identified a key link in the spread of Ebola from Guinea to Sierra Leone: just one woman.

She was an herbalist in Sierra Leone who claimed that she could heal the disease, according to AFP. The story seems to suggest that if not for this one link, the disease may not have entered Sierra Leone, where it has now killed approximately 370 people.

People with Ebola came from Guinea to seek healing. The healer caught the disease, and died.

Then, people came from surrounding towns for her funeral and caught Ebola from her body or contaminated objects. (Traditional funeral practices involve directly touching the body, which can transmit the disease.) When the mourners returned home to a wider area, they took the disease with them.

People are still working to track the Ebola outbreak down to its initial source — when the virus jumped from an animal to a person in Guinea. According to the New York Times, researchers suspect that this person, often called Patient Zero, may have been a two-year-old boy.