News / Health

    Scientist Who Discovered Ebola Is Frustrated by Deadly Guinea Outbreak

    A medical worker from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and researchers who are working on the Ebola outbreak in Uganda, at their laboratory in Entebbe, 42 kilometers from the capital Kampala, Aug. 2, 2012.
    A medical worker from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and researchers who are working on the Ebola outbreak in Uganda, at their laboratory in Entebbe, 42 kilometers from the capital Kampala, Aug. 2, 2012.
    Reuters
    Peter Piot was 27, newly qualified and working in a microbiology lab in Antwerp when he received a flask of human blood contaminated with a mysterious pathogen that had been killing people in the forests of Zaire.

    If he'd known then what he was to discover - that inside was Ebola, one of the most lethal infectious diseases now known in humans - he would have taken more safety precautions.

    As it was, Piot and his colleagues wore only latex gloves and white cotton lab coats as they unscrewed the top, took out its contents - vials of infected blood taken from a Flemish nun in Zaire, stored in a blue thermos flask and couriered to Belgium on a passenger plane - and began analyzing them.

    “Looking back, that was probably quite irresponsible. But we didn't know then what we were dealing with,” the now 65-year-old said in an interview from his office at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, where he is director.

    “These are dangerous moments - particularly when you don't know what you've got. Such blood can contain very high levels of virus,” he said.

    'Spectacular virus'

    That tale dates from Belgium in 1976, when Piot and his team became the co-discoverers of Ebola. The young Belgian scientist then went to Zaire, now Congo, in central Africa to work in the rainforests among dying villagers and missionaries to collect samples and investigate the epidemic.

    Yet almost four decades on, the disease Piot describes as “a spectacular virus - and one of the most lethal infections you can think of”, has continued to rise up in the region, causing frightening but sporadic outbreaks that kill poor and vulnerable people with gruesome haemorrhagic fevers.

    In Guinea, health authorities said on Monday that an outbreak there - the first known in a west Africa country  - already involves scores of suspected cases.

    The Geneva-based World Health Organization said on Tuesday Guinea had reported at least 86 cases reported, including 59 deaths.

    Six suspected Ebola cases, including five deaths, in neighboring Liberia were also under investigation, it said.

    Piot says he's saddened and frustrated by this and other outbreaks -  partly because they should be easy to prevent, or at least to contain, and partly because the scientific detective work behind the Ebola virus has not yet revealed its main host.

    “What we're seeing is a pattern that's been repeated in nearly every single Ebola outbreak,” he told Reuters.

    “It started in people who live in the forest, or in close contact with it, and it's then transmitted around hospitals....and then spreads further either at funerals or in households though close contact.”

    No treatment or vaccine

    The virus initially causes a raging fever, headaches, muscle pain and conjunctivitis, before moving to severe phases that bring on vomiting, diarrhea and internal and external bleeding. It kills up to 90 percent of those who become infected.

    That there is no treatment or vaccine against Ebola suggests people are helpless in the face of this vicious virus, but Piot insists that is not the case.

    “Fundamentally, Ebola is easy to contain,” he said. “It's not a question of needing high technology.”

    “It's about respecting the basics of hygiene, and about isolation, quarantine and protecting yourself - in particular protecting healthcare workers, because they are very exposed.”

    The problem in Guinea, and in other countries in Africa where Ebola has reared up in the past few decades, is that health systems are in bad shape, he said, communications are limited, and the people are fairly mobile and very poor.

    As a doctor and researcher whose life has been dedicated to the pursuit of deadly viruses - (after his Ebola discovery Piot became one of the world's leading scientific experts on HIV and AIDS) - Piot is also frustrated that scientists have not yet been able to pin down the main host of this lethal fever.

    While the virus is known to be transmitted to people from wild animals, before spreading in humans through person-to-person transmission, its main animal host - or what virologists often call the “reservoir” of a virus - is not totally clear.

    Piot, like others, suspects fruit bats of the Pteropodidae family are the most likely natural host, yet the uncertainty leaves scientists unable to get ahead of fresh outbreaks.

    “This is a virus that is highly unpredictable,” he said. “This time it popped up in Guinea where it has never been detected before.

    “Why there? Why now? That's what I find frustrating. If we knew for sure the host of this virus, we could do more to say where people are more at risk.”

    You May Like

    S. African Farmer Goes From 'Voice in the Wilderness' to Sought-After Expert

    Margarest Roberts has authored more than 40 books on subjects like organic farming, urban agriculture, herbs and ‘superfoods'

    Millennial Men Prefer Bucks Over Beauty

    U.S. men aged 18 to 34 say the finances of a potential significant other are more important than her looks

    Multimedia Lebanese Clown Troupe Marks Valentine's Day Amid Stink

    Activists resort to unusual approaches to raise public awareness of country’s ongoing trash crisis

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Valentine's Day Stinks for Lebanese Clownsi
    X
    February 09, 2016 8:04 PM
    This weekend, on Valentine's Day in Lebanon, love is not the only thing in the air. More than half a year after the country's trash crisis began, the stink of uncollected garbage remains on the streets. Step forward "Clown Me In," a group of clowns who use their skills for activism. Before the most romantic day of the year the clowns have released their unusual take on love in Lebanon -- in a bid to keep the pressure up and get the trash off the streets. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Valentine's Day Stinks for Lebanese Clowns

    This weekend, on Valentine's Day in Lebanon, love is not the only thing in the air. More than half a year after the country's trash crisis began, the stink of uncollected garbage remains on the streets. Step forward "Clown Me In," a group of clowns who use their skills for activism. Before the most romantic day of the year the clowns have released their unusual take on love in Lebanon -- in a bid to keep the pressure up and get the trash off the streets. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Rocky Year Ahead for Nigeria Amid Oil Price Crash

    The global fall in the price of oil has rattled the economies of many petroleum exporters, and Africa’s oil king Nigeria is no exception. As Chris Stein reports from Lagos, analysts are predicting a rough year ahead for the continent’s top producer of crude.
    Video

    Video Foreign Policy Weighs Heavy for Some US Voters

    VOA talks to protesters in Manchester, New Hampshire who sound off on foreign policy issues such as the Guantanamo Bay Prison, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Middle East Affairs and national security.
    Video

    Video 'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenya

    The organizers of an initiative to reduce and stop rape in the informal settlements around Kenya's capital say their program is having marked success. Girls are taking self-defense classes while the boys are learning how to protect the girls and respect them. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.
    Video

    Video New Hampshire Voters Are Independent, Mindful of History

    Once every four years, the northeastern state of New Hampshire becomes the center of the U.S. political universe with its first-in-the-nation presidential primary. What's unusual about New Hampshire is how seriously the voters take their role and the responsibility of being among the first to weigh in on the candidates.
    Video

    Video Chocolate Lovers Get a Sweet History Lesson

    Observed in many countries around the world, Valentine’s Day is sometimes celebrated with chocolate festivals. But at a festival near Washington, the visitors experience a bit more than a sugar rush. They go on a sweet journey through history. VOA’s June Soh takes us to the festival.
    Video

    Video 'Smart' Bandages Could Heal Wounds More Quickly

    Simple bandages are usually seen as the first line of attack in healing small to moderate wounds and burns. But scientists say new synthetic materials with embedded microsensors could turn bandages into a much more valuable tool for emergency physicians. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Bhutanese Refugees in New Hampshire Closely Watching Primary Election

    They fled their country and lived in refugee camps in neighboring Nepal for decades before being resettled in the northeastern U.S. state of New Hampshire -- now the focus of the U.S. presidential contest. VOA correspondent Aru Pande spoke with members of the Bhutanese community, including new American citizens, about the campaign and the strong anti-immigrant rhetoric of some of the candidates.
    Video

    Video Researchers Use 3-D Printer to Produce Transplantable Body Parts

    Human organ transplants have become fairly common around the world in the past few decades. Researchers at various universities are coordinating their efforts to find solutions -- including teams at the University of Pennsylvania and Rice University in Houston that are experimenting with a 3-D printer -- to make blood vessels and other structures for implant. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, they are also using these artificial body parts to seek ways of defeating cancerous tumors.
    Video

    Video Helping the Blind 'See' Great Art

    There are 285 million blind and visually impaired people in the world who are unable to enjoy visual art at a museum. One New York photographer is trying to fix this situation by making tangible copies of the world’s masterpieces. VOA correspondent Victoria Kupchinetsky was there as visually impaired people got a feel for great art. Joy Wagner narrates her report.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.