How the First Ebola Outbreak Was Identified and Contained

In May, the Financial Times published a story by Peter Piot, a microbiologist who, in 1976, helped contain and identify a deadly new virus called Ebola in Yambuku, a remote Congolese village. Piot returned to the village nearly 40 years later to see how much had changed. Here, Piot recalls what it was like to enter the village and figure out how infections were being spread:

Once we had all settled down, the sisters prepared a solid dinner of Flemish beef stew and started to tell the story of the epidemic. They explained in great detail how their colleagues had died, who the first victims were at the mission and then in other villages, and that nothing seemed to work as treatment. One sister had kept careful notes on each patient. They decided that we should sleep on the floor in the school classroom as we did not know whether the bedrooms in the convent were contaminated. But I didn’t sleep much that first night in Yambuku, with a thousand questions going through my head and the sounds of the rainforest outside.

It quickly became clear that something was wrong at the hospital. Epidemiological detective work by our team confirmed the suspicions: people were being infected at the hospital through injections made using contaminated needles and syringes (only five syringes and needles were issued to the nurses each morning), and hospital staff and attendees at funerals were falling victim through exposure to body fluids infected with the virus. In addition there seemed to be transmission from mothers to babies.

Closing the hospital (which, in any case, had been abandoned by frightened patients) was the decisive action that stopped the Ebola epidemic, and the last victim died on November 5. In simple terms, poor medical practice had killed hundreds of people. The missionaries were undoubtedly doing highly valuable work in education and community development but managing a hospital (without a physician, since they could not find one who would work in such a remote place) was beyond their expertise.

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