The 10-Year-Old Boy Has Died, Probably Of Ebola

Aug 21, 2014
Originally published on January 8, 2015 11:40 am

It was a photo that took the Ebola outbreak raging in West Africa and made it very personal. A little boy named Saah Exco, 10 years old, lies in a crumpled heap.

As NPR's Nurith Aizenman explained Wednesday, hours before, the boy had been found naked on a beach in West Point, an impoverished neighborhood in Monrovia, Liberia's capital city. At one point, Saah had been a patient at the Ebola holding center there, for suspected cases. It's unclear when or why he was released.

But now he was on his own, drifting in and out of consciousness.

People in the neighborhood knew him. Somehow, they brought him to an alleyway. They gave him a shirt and pants. But no one wanted to hold him, to take him into a home.

Many folks in West Point — and throughout West Africa — don't think Ebola is real. Yet they were afraid. What if Ebola really is real and what if the boy had the virus? It's what NPR photographer David Gilkey, who took the photo of the boy that ran on our website, calls "an evil Catch 22."

Efforts were made to get him to a clinic but the clinic said no: The facility was not equipped to handle suspected Ebola patients.

Eventually a neighbor took Saah to John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Monrovia, which cares for Ebola patients.

There was a brief glimmer of hope yesterday — word came that the boy was improving.

Then today, his fate became clear. Getty photographer John Moore, who had also taken pictures of Saah, spoke to the boy's aunt. She was checking into a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Monrovia with her five children — all of them, including her, suspected Ebola cases. The aunt said that Saah died yesterday at JFK hospital. She said the boy's mother had previously died of Ebola as well.

In a country where some believe that the virus isn't real, Saah Exco is now one of more than 500 victims, sealed in a tiny body bag.

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A weak 10-year-old boy struggles to put on a red T-shirt while a crowd is gathered around him. And for a while, no one steps forward to help. They just watch. It's an image that was taken by NPR photographer David Gilkey in Liberia this week. It's an image of Ebola. Later the boy, named Saah Exco, rested in an alleyway on a flattened cardboard box. Gilkey's camera also capture that image. David Gilkey is on the line with us from Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. And David, to begin, tell us about the moment you first saw Saah Exco.

DAVID GILKEY: Well, we were walking around the community of West Point. I was with another photographer, John Moore, and one of the residents had come out and said that there was a little boy that was on the beach who was very sick and that we should come and see him. So we worked our way through the alleyways. This is a super congested neighborhood. It's a shantytown, so it's sort of cement block houses.

But we got down to the beach and just off the sand was this little boy sitting on a bucket. And he was not wearing any clothes. He was surrounded probably by about 50 people, sitting there naked, alone, shivering and sort of - I wouldn't call it breathing but panting. It was shocking.

CORNISH: David, what were you able to find out about how he got there or even where he had been before?

GILKEY: Well, he was at a holding center in West Point. And this was Friday night - was the last time he was seen there. So he actually got out from the center on Friday, and then on Saturday it was overrun by a mob and everybody left. So this little boy, Saah Exco, who is 10 years old, when he got out was really on his own. And he was down sleeping on the beach and hiding in the neighborhoods.

CORNISH: How were you able to get help for him, or did someone eventually take him to a clinic or hospital?

GILKEY: Well, when he was surrounded by this crowd, somebody eventually brought clothes for him. But everyone was sort of scared to put them on him. Nobody wanted to touch him. So myself and John Moore, the other photographer who was there, handed some of the women gloves - latex gloves that they could use to put the close on him and that's how he eventually sort of got this little red shirt on. It was just heartbreaking to see, just because he was struggling so hard to put the shirt on. He had no, really, life in him left and certainly didn't have the energy to do it. He was just struggling with the shirt around his head.

CORNISH: David, what's happened to Saah Exco since?

GILKEY: Well, later that day we came across him and you saw the photograph of him laying in an alleyway. So the people in the neighborhood eventually used these cardboard boxes to sort of get him off of the beach and away from the crowds. And he was laying in an alleyway. And it was just gut-wrenching because he was laying there all by himself, and everybody was walking by him, and he was, you know, slowly being covered in flies. It was really a scene of sort of a slow death. He was eventually, that night, picked up and taken to a hospital and admitted. And unfortunately, the next day we learned that he had died - he had passed away.

CORNISH: What is it about this story - Saah Exco's story that is staying with you?

GILKEY: I mean, seeing him for the first time on that beach - I'm not a parent but I can sympathize with anybody who has kids who would see something like this. You just wanted to pick him up. You wanted to get him dressed, and you wanted to get him somewhere safe. But you couldn't. I mean it was - you had to sympathize with the crowd. They didn't know whether he had this deadly disease or not, and therefore you had to exercise caution in how you dealt with him. But the state and the feeling of hopelessness that it gave you was - it was truly heartbreaking.

CORNISH: David, thanks so much for speaking with us.

GILKEY: You're welcome. Thank you.

CORNISH: That's NPR photographer David Gilkey. He spoke to us about images he took this week of Saah Exco, a 10-year-old who was suffering from Ebola. He died on Wednesday. David's photos are on our website at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.