History Class: This is the square-root of Ebola

by Emmanuel Chidiogo


ebola virus

Tagged to be the world’s deadliest disease of our time, the Ebola virus has been around for a couple of decades.

In Nigeria, reports were heard of the existence of this disease in other countries and its fatality rate, never would one have thought (probably, some imagined) that the ugly Ebola will find its way into the country. However, that is not coming as a surprise to us, for a country where things which are to be treated with seriousness are handled with kids gloves.

Today, Nigeria has its first case of Ebola infection & death, courtesy of a Liberian national. Many questions remain unanswered, which can be found here.

But where on Earth did this evil miscreant come from? Who is the inventor? what are its carriers?

In September 1976, a package containing a shiny, blue thermos flask arrived at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Belgium. Working in the lab that day was Peter Piot, a 27-year-old scientist and medical school graduate training as a clinical microbiologist.

“It was just a normal flask like any other you would use to keep coffee warm,” recalls Piot, now Director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. But this thermos wasn’t carrying coffee – inside was an altogether different cargo. Nestled amongst a few melting ice cubes were vials of blood along with a note.

By the end of 1976, Ebola had spread to Sudan, with a total of 318 people infected
By the end of 1976, Ebola had spread to Sudan, with a total of 318 people infected

It was from a Belgian doctor based in what was then Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo – his handwritten message explained that the blood was that of a nun, also from Belgium, who had fallen ill with a mysterious illness which he couldn’t identify. This unusual delivery had travelled all the way from Zaire’s capital city Kinshasa, on a commercial flight, in one of the passengers’ hand luggage.

“When we opened the thermos, we saw that one of the vials was broken and blood was mixing with the water from the melted ice,” says Piot. The samples were treated like numerous others the lab had tested before, but when the scientists placed some of the cells under an electron microscope they saw something they didn’t expect.

“We saw a gigantic worm-like structure – gigantic by viral standards,” says Piot. “It’s a very unusual shape for a virus, only one other virus looked like that and that was the Marburg virus.”

The Marburg virus was first recognised in 1967 when 31 people became ill with haemorrhagic fever in the cities of Marburg and Frankfurt in Germany and in Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia. This Marburg outbreak was associated with laboratory staff who were working with infected monkeys imported from Uganda – seven people died.

Piot knew how serious Marburg could be – but after consulting experts around the world he got confirmation that what he was seeing under the microscope wasn’t Marburg – this was something else, something never seen before. The Ebola virus under an electron microscope.

News had reached Antwerp that the nun, who was under the care of the doctor in Zaire, had died. The team also learnt that many others were falling ill with this mysterious illness in a remote area in the north of Zaire. By the end of 1976, it had spread to Sudan, with a total of 318 people infected (named after the Ebola River in Zaire) and killing 280 (a fatality percentage of 88)

Despite the tremendous effort of experienced and dedicated researchers, Ebola’s natural reservoir was never identified. The third strain of Ebola, Ebola Reston (EBOR), was first identified in 1989 when infected monkeys were imported into Reston, Virginia, from Mindanao in the Philippines. Fortunately, the few people who were infected with EBOR (seroconverted) never developed Ebola hemorrhagic fever (EHF).

Ebola Cote d’Ivoire (EBO-CI) was discovered in 1994 when a female ethologist performing a necropsy on a dead chimpanzee from the Tai Forest, Cote d’Ivoire, accidentally infected herself during the necropsy. But no death was recorded.

Fruit bats are believed to carry and spread the ebola virus without being affected by it
Fruit bats are believed to carry and spread the ebola virus without being affected by it

Before 2014, the last recorded case of Ebola, was in 2012 in DR Congo between June and November (77 infected, 36 deaths)

Presently over 1093 cases have been reported in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, with over 672 deaths – Nigeria accounting for one.

Fruit bats are believed to carry and spread the disease without being affected by it. Once infection occurs, the disease may be spread from one person to another. Men who survive may be able to transmit the disease sexually for nearly two months. Monkies have also been identified as carriers of the infection.

Experts have also warned about “bush meat” (any kind of meat that poachers bring out of “the bush,” forest and bushlands of Africa, especially central Africa).

Now that Ebola is here, it is important that we take safety precaution, so as to control its infection/fatality rate. You can read on how to prevent Ebola here

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