One of the co-discoverers of the Ebola virus has called the current situation a “humanitarian catastrophe.”
Dr. Peter Piot, who discovered Ebola in 1976 when a pilot gave him a blood sample from a sick Belgian nun in Zaire, also told Der Spiegel how the name ‘Ebola’ came to be. The interview was later translated and republished in The Guardian.
Piot, who is the Executive Director of UNAIDS and an Undersecretary-General of the United Nations, said the reason the World Health Organization (WHO) reacted so late is the African regional office doesn’t have very capable people and is filled with political appointees. He believes that although it is good that the United States and other countries are getting involved, others must do more.
“I have always been an optimist and I think that we now have no other choice than to try everything, really everything. It’s good that the United States and some other countries are finally beginning to help. But Germany or even Belgium, for example, must do a lot more.
“And it should be clear to all of us: This isn’t an epidemic anymore. This is a humanitarian catastrophe. We don’t just need care personnel, but also logistics experts, trucks, keeps and foodstuffs. Such an epidemic can destabilize entire regions. I can only hope that we will be able to get it under control. I really never thought that it could get this bad.”
The co-discoverer of the Ebola virus acknowledged an outbreak in North America or Europe could be controlled quickly, but is more worried about many from India who travel to west Africa for work.
“It would only take one of them to become infected, travel to India to visit relatives during the virus’s incubation period, and then, once he becomes sick, go to a public hospital there. Doctors and nurses in India, too, often don’t wear protective gloves. They would immediately become infected and spread the virus.”
He also tells the German outlet how he remembers ‘exactly’ the details of how he and the research team he was with came to discovering Ebola when a pilot brought a blood sample of a sick Belgian nun and requested that it be tested for yellow fever.
“One day in September , a pilot from Sabena Airlines brought us a shiny blue Thermos and a letter from a doctor in Kinshasa in what was then Zaire. In the Thermos, he wrote, there was a blood sample from a Belgian nun who had recently fallen ill from a mysterious sickness in Yambuku, a remote village in the northern part of the country. He asked us to test the sample for yellow fever.
“We had no idea how dangerous the virus was. And there were no high-security labs in Belgium. We just wore our white lab coats and protective gloves. When we opened the Thermos, the ice inside had largely melted and one of the vials had broken. Blood and glass shards were floating in the ice water. We fished the other, intact, test tube out of the slop and began examining the blood for pathogens, using the methods that were standard at the time.
Piot explains when the team was able to create an image of the Ebola virus with an electron microscope, their first thought was, “What the hell is that?”, and that it was nothing like yellow fever.
“The virus that we had spent so much time searching for was very big, very long, and worm-like. It had no similarities with yellow fever. Rather, it looked like the extremely dangerous Marburg virus which, like Ebola, causes a hemorrhagic fever. In the 1960s, the virus killed several laboratory workers in Marburg, Germany.”
The world renown doctor tells Der Spiegel when he and his colleagues treated Ebola patients early on, they wore protective suits and latex gloves to shield themselves from those infected. He adds that he borrowed a pair of motorcycle goggles for eye protection, and managed to avoid infection, though did become sick.
“At some point I did actually develop a high fever, a headache, and diarrhea… I immediately thought ‘Damn, this is it!’ But then I tried to keep my cool. I knew the symptoms I had could be from something completely different and harmless. And it really would have been stupid to spend two weeks in the horrible isolation tent that had been set up for us scientists for the worst case. So I just stayed alone in my room and waited.
“Of course, I didn’t get a wink of sleep, but luckily I began feeling better by the next day. It was just a gastrointestinal infection. Actually, that is the best thing that can happen in your life: you look death in the eye but survive. It changed my whole approach, my whole outlook on life at the time.”
Piot explains that he chose Ebola and not “Yambuku virus”, the area where the virus was discovered, as the Ebola River appeared to be the closest river on the map.
“On that day our team sat together late into the night – had also had a couple of drinks – discussing the question. We definitely didn’t want to name the new pathogen “Yambuku virus,” because that would have stigmatised the place forever. There was a map hanging on the wall and our American team leader suggested looking for the nearest river and giving the virus its name. It was the Ebola river. So by around three or four in the morning we had found a name.
“But the map was small and inexact. We only learned later that the nearest river was actually a different one. But Ebola is a nice name, isn’t it?”
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