(CNN) — Before the virus ravaged West Africa, before the deaths soared into the thousands, before the outbreak triggered global fears, Ebola struck a toddler named Emile Ouamouno.
Virtually no one knew the 2-year-old by name. Now the world knows him as patient zero.
Researchers from the New England Journal of Medicine believe Emile was the first person to contract the disease in the current outbreak almost a year ago — on December 6.
It’s not clear exactly how the boy got infected. But within a month, the virus claimed the lives of his 3-year-old sister, his mother and his grandmother.
Emile’s father is left with only fond memories from before Ebola ripped apart his life.
“Before my children Emile and Philomène died, they loved to play with a ball. My wife liked to carry the baby on her back,” Etienne Ouamouno told UNICEF, the United Nations’ children’s agency.
The family lived in the village of Meliandou in southern Guinea, where goats and chickens roam around the simple brown huts.
The village sits close to Guinea’s borders with Sierra Leone and Liberia.
It didn’t take long for Ebola to spread like wildfire.
After the deaths in the Ouamouno family, a village midwife passed the disease to relatives and a health care worker treating her in another village, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.
That health care worker was treated in a Macenta hospital, and a doctor who treated her also came down with Ebola. The doctor then passed it to his brothers in Kissidougou.
All of them died.
And now, the death toll has skyrocketed to almost 5,000 in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Meliandou, ground zero of the outbreak, is now free of Ebola. But the lingering effects of any village devastated by virus can last for years.
“We noticed that with this crisis, which is almost a humanitarian catastrophe, people flee their villages, and abandon their families and their children,” said Fassou Isidor Lama, a UNICEF child protection officer.
“They reject the infected children and the other infected family members. That’s why UNICEF’s response ranges from direct support of the children … to accompanying the family to avoid stigmatization and facilitate reintegration.”