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The Disease Detective Who Speaks the Truth About Epidemics

Author: Laurie Garrett, Senior Fellow for Global Health
June 16, 2016
Council on Foreign Relations

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The first time I saw Ali Khan in action, we were both much younger, and perhaps more idealistic. The year was 1995, the place — a remote village down the Kwilu River from the equally remote city of Kikwit, in a nation formerly known as Zaire, now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was sweltering hot, we were atop the equator, and the center of the village was denuded of shade-providing trees. The village elder, shouting in Kikongo, was putting out as much angry heat as the sun boring down upon us: He was enraged that Khan and other foreigners were trying to remove an ailing resident of the village to a quarantine site.

Tempers rise during epidemics. Every culture, whether African or American, has beliefs and taboos that clash with efforts to stop the spread of disease. In my experience, few diseases elevate raw emotions and fear like the hemorrhagic virus Ebola. I sat on the periphery, trying to follow as the Kikongo, Zairois, French, and Parisian patois barked back and forth among the locals and their American, Belgian, and WHO visitors. But I was distracted by Khan, who stood off to the side, pen and paper in hand, wearing no hat or sunglasses and decked out in what I recall as a starched white shirt, dark tie, dark pants and loafers — as if he were in downtown Atlanta, not stifling hot, red-dust-coated central Africa. When a moment allowed, I sidled up and asked whether it was wise for him to wear a tight tie and warm clothing in such conditions.

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