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

Multimedia Obama Defends Immigration Action

Obama says with his executive action on immigration, enforcement resources will be focused on 'felons, not families; criminals, not children' More

US-Led Airstrikes in Syria Kill Over 900: Monitoring Group

British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the toll includes more than 50 civilians, five of them women and eight of them children More

Report: Obama Broadens US Combat Role in Afghanistan

The New York Times says resident Barack Obama has signed a classified order extending the role of US troops in Afghanistan for another year More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
New Skateboard Defies Gravityi
X
November 21, 2014 5:07 AM
A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Gay Evangelicals Argue That Bible Does Not Condemn Homosexuality

More than 30 U.S. states now recognize same-sex marriages, and an increasing number of mainline American churches are blessing them. But evangelical church members- which account for around 30 percent of the U.S. adult population - believe the Bible unequivocally condemns homosexuality. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender evangelicals are coming out. Backed by a prominent evangelical scholar, they argue that the traditional reading of the bible is wrong.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Mexico Protests Escalate Over Disappearances

Protests in Mexico over 43 students missing since September continue to escalate, reflecting growing anger among Mexicans about a political system they view as corrupt, and increasingly tainted by the drug trade. Mounting outrage over the disappearances is now focused on the government of President Enrique Pena Nieto, accused of not doing enough to end insecurity in the country. More from VOA's Victoria Macchi.
Video

Video US Senate Votes Down Controversial Oil Pipeline - For Now

The U.S. Senate has rejected construction of a controversial pipeline to transport Canadian oil to American refineries. The $5 billion project still could be approved next year, but it faces a possible veto by President Barack Obama. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, the pipeline has exposed deep divisions in Congress about America’s energy future.
Video

Video Can Minsk Cease-fire Agreement Hold?

Growing tensions between government troops and separatists in eastern Ukraine further threaten a cease-fire agreement reached two months ago in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. Critics of U.S. policy in Ukraine say it is time the Obama administration gives up on that much-violated cease-fire and moves toward a new deal with Russia. VOA's Scott Stearns has more.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Ferguson Church Grapples with Race Relations

Many white residents of Ferguson, Missouri, say they chose to live there because of the American Midwest community's diversity. So, they were shocked when a white police officer killed an unarmed black teenager in August – and shaken by the resulting protests and violence. Some local churches are leading conversations on how to go forward. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid