Ebola: An Unimaginable Tragedy

The Observer posted an article today in which it asked a series of questions of the researcher who was involved in the original discovery of the Ebola virus. Through a series of interview questions, they ascertain what Peter Piot thinks about the recent Ebola outbreak, and help give some insight into how it got out, and what we might expect.

It was 1976 when Peter Piot, the doctor who named Ebola, had his first experience with the Ebola virus. The one-time Belgian researcher, who is now the Director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, first came into contact with the Ebola virus in a Belgian lab when a pilot brought him a blood sample that had been taken from a Belgian nun, who later died. While in Kinshasa, which is now Zaire, the nun had been beset by a mystery illness. A doctor in Kinshasa, thinking it was a possible case of yellow fever, sent the blood sample via pilot, encased in a frozen blue thermos, to Piot for testing.

Back in those days, security levels were minimal, and doctors only wore white lab coats and protective gloves. At one point, they even dropped a vial on the floor, where it shattered on an assistants shoe, however, none of the researchers contracted the virus.

Tests came out negative for yellow fever, typhoid and Lassa, so doctors decided to inject the virus into mice and other animals in the lab to see what would happen. Initially, there was no response, but after a few days, the animals began to die one by one.

Because it was similar to the Marburg virus, which can also cause hemorrhagic fever, researchers initially thought it may be a strain; however, testing indicated it was an unknown, but possibly related virus. Doctors decided to name Ebola after the Ebola River sort of randomly. The figured since the river was closest to the area where the infection had broken out, the name would fit well.

It turned out that nuns had actually spread the Ebola virus by using unsterilized needled when injecting pregnant women with vitamins. Piot thinks that clinics often fail to observe basic hygiene, and may inadvertently spread viruses and other diseases. He thinks the recent outbreak may have gotten out of control because of recent civil wars that led to doctors leaving and healthcare system collapse. The article in the Guardian states that there were only 51 doctors in Liberia in 2010, and that some of those have died after contracting the Ebola virus. Other things that might have spread the virus are corpses being moved across towns and villages. Corpses are especially virulent.

Doctor Piot warns that if Ebola spreads to highly populated cities, the world could be looking at “unimaginable catastrophe.” He feels that countries such as Germany, which is close to Belgium, must step up to help avert what he calls a “humanitarian catastrophe.”

When asked if he felt we are facing a new pandemic, Piot states that, “An outbreak in Europe or North America would quickly be brought under control.” He does go on to say that because the virus is continually changing at the genetic level that it might spread more easily, possibly leading to an “apocalyptic scenario.” If the virus mutates to live longer, it could eventually mutate to spread more efficiently through the air.

Doctor Piot feels that it might be beneficial to take blood serum from Ebola survivors to treat new infections. Antibodies survivors develop may help others combat the virus. Experimental drugs may help, but he warns against too heavy a reliance on these medications, stating, “For most people, they will come too late in this epidemic.”

Overall, Piot feels optimistic about the possibility of proclaiming victory over the Ebola virus. He compares Ebola to AIDS and says it can be depressing, but can also motivate. He wants to do something, and he is asking others to step up as well. He urges the powers of the world to step in and help, before it is too late. 

Reference: The Guardian