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.
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

US, China Have Dueling Definitions of Cybersecurity

Analysts say attribution or or proving that a particular individual or government is responsible for a hack, is a daunting task More

Snowden: I'd Go to Prison to Return to US

Former NSA contractor says he has not received a formal plea-deal offer from US officials, who consider him to be a traitor More

Goodbye Pocahontas: Photos Reveal Today's Real Native Americans

Weary of stereotypes, photographer Matika Wilbur is determined to reshape the public's perception of her people More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Making a Minti
October 07, 2015 4:17 AM
While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video Self-Driving Cars Getting Closer

We are at the dawn of the robotic car age and should start getting used to seeing self-driving cars, at least on highways. Car and truck manufacturers are now running a tight race to see who will be the first to hit the street, while some taxicab companies are already planning to upgrade their fleets. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Clinton Seeks to Boost Image Before Upcoming Debate

The five announced Democratic party presidential contenders meet in their first debate next Tuesday in Las Vegas, Nevada. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton continues to lead the Democratic field, but she is getting a stronger-than-expected challenge from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

Video Music Brings Generations Together

When musicians over the age of 50 headline a rock concert, you expect to see baby boomer fans in the audience. Boomer rock stars have boomer fans. Millennial rock stars have millennial fans. But this isn’t always the case. Take the Lockn’ Music festival which took place in mid-September in rural Arrington, Virginia. Here, Jacquelyn de Phillips discovered two generations of people who are considered quite different in the outside world, spending 4 days together in music-loving harmony.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

Video South Carolina Reels Under Worst-ever Flooding

South Carolina is reeling from the worst flooding in recorded history that forced residents from their homes and left thousands without drinking water and electricity. Parts of the state, including the capital, Columbia, received about 60 centimeters of rain in just a couple of days. Authorities warn that the end of rain does not mean the end of danger, as it will take days for the water to recede. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

VOA Blogs