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Meet the man who gave the Ebola virus its name

Peter Piot, one of the researchers who discovered the virus, warns that the virus does not augur well for India

Priya Prasad  |  Mumbai 

Peter Piot
Peter Piot (Photo courtsey: Wikipedia)

In an interview with Der Spiegel, Professor Peter Piot, the Director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said that an outbreak in North America or Europe can be brought under control but the disease is a greater risk for because of the number of Indians working in West African nations. Speaking to the reputed German daily, he adds that doctors and nurses in public hospitals in do not wear gloves, and this will only serve to exacerbate the spread of the disease.

Furthermore, the constantly changing genetic makeup of the virus means it will spread at a much greater speed. Professor Piot explains why, “Humans are actually just an accidental host for the virus, and not a good one. From the perspective of a virus, it isn't desirable for its host, within which the pathogen hopes to multiply, to die so quickly. It would be much better for the virus to allow us to stay alive longer.”

However, the professor dismisses the possibility of becoming airborne, but adds that a mutation will make an infected individual live longer, thus giving the virus time to spread to more people.

That hasn't happened since the virus was first detected in 1976, so what makes the present Ebola outbreak different from previous ones?

Ebola in 1976

Professor Piot’s first association with Ebola took place in 1976 when he and his team received blood samples of a Belgian nun working in in the Congo, who had been infected with a mysterious illness that local doctors were unable to diagonise. Without realizing how dangerous the virus was, his team had tested the virus in their lab coats and gloves for yellow fever, Lassa fever and typhoid — all of which tested negative.

They even injected mice and other lab animals with the virus, and after several days of the researchers thinking nothing would happen, each animal died. That’s when they realized they were dealing with a virus of deadly proportions. Professor Piot said his team was also able to create an image of the virus, which was a worm-like structure. They initially thought this was the virus, which also causes haemorrhagic fever, but after further investigations, the professor ruled that out later as well. It was after this that Professor Piot travelled to the epicenter of the disease in He even recounted a nerve-wracking and life-altering experience where he mistook a gastrointestinal infection for Ebola.

Eventually, the professor discovered that some Belgian nuns running a hospital there had unwittingly spread the disease by giving “pregnant women vitamin injections using unsterilized needles.” However, the professor adds, “…looking back I would say that we were much too careful in our choice of words. Clinics that failed to observe this and other rules of hygiene functioned as catalysts in all additional Ebola outbreaks.”

Then and Now

The difference between 1976 and 2014, Professor Piot said, is that the countries currently hit by the epidemic have just emerged from civil wars. Thus, their healthcare infrastructure is all but non-existent. “In all of Liberia, for example, there were only 51 doctors in 2010, and many of them have since died of Ebola,” he adds.

Moreover, the infections occurred among highly mobile populations, in border areas between Guinea, and “Because the dead in this region are traditionally buried in the towns and villages they were born in, there were highly contagious Ebola corpses travelling back and forth across the borders in pickups and taxis. The result was that the epidemic kept flaring up in different places,” the professor explains.

How does the situation stand now? What measures are being taken to control the disease’s spread?

Controlling the disease

The professor is ominous in his assessment of the epidemic, “This isn't just an epidemic any more. This is a humanitarian catastrophe. We don't just need care personnel, but also logistics experts, trucks, jeeps and foodstuffs. Such an epidemic can destabilise entire regions.” The greatest challenge facing health care workers in infected sites such as Sierra Leone, the professor said, was educating the family members of infected patients how to protect themselves from contracting the disease. He initially thought a three-day curfew in was rather extreme but since there are inadequate measures to combat the virus, such options may have some effect.

It seems history is repeating itself: in 1976, poor hygiene in hospitals caused the disease to spread. The same is happening even now. “I can still see the Ebola patients in Yambuku, how they died in their shacks and we couldn't do anything except let them die. In principle, it's still the same today. That is very depressing. But it also provides me with a strong motivation to do something. I love life. That is why I am doing everything I can to convince the powerful in this world to finally send sufficient help to west Africa. Now!” said the professor emphatically.

First Published: Tue, October 07 2014. 16:00 IST