Furthermore, the constantly changing genetic makeup of the Ebola 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 Ebola 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
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.
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 Sierra Leone 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.