Amid a decline in the west African Ebola outbreak that has taken more than 11,000 lives, Congolese expert Jean-Jacques Muyembe, one of the world's top Ebola investigators since the first epidemic erupted in central Africa in 1976, has warned that Ebola will strike again in the future and that the deadly virus poses a threat to the whole world.
When Muyembe returned home in 1976, after studying medicine, the northern village of Yambuku was struck by a mysterious disease. Muyembe said, "They said many people were dying, and the health ministry asked me to go investigate. I initially thought it could be a case of typhoid fever but decided to continue investigating until I got to the bottom of it. I drew blood, and had no protective gloves or clothing."
Accompanied by a Belgian nun suffering from fever, he returned from Yambuku to Kinshasa, where he had studied medicine. The nun's blood samples were shipped in a makeshift cooler to the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp. This sample enabled scientist Peter Piot to identify the worm-looking virus for the first time, which was then named after the Ebola river, located near the area first hit by the epidemic.
Muyembe added, "Then there was total silence until 1995. That year, I was summoned to Tikwit in the south of DR Congo where a bloody diarrhea outbreak was decimating the population, including medical staff. I examined an Italian nun and saw signs that reminded me of the Yambuku incident. I discovered that contamination had taken place in the operation room, in other words, from the patient's blood."
Muyembe's discovery that the virus is transmitted through bodily fluids was a key find against Ebola. He said, "From then on, we put in place strategies to fight against the disease, isolating patients, following up on people they had been in contact with, and mobilizing communities. These are strategies that the World Health Organization practices today."
Muyembe's team then started testing serotherapy on Ebola patients. He said, "We drew blood from people recovering from Ebola, and injected it into eight sick patients. Seven of them survived, even though there was an 80% mortality rate." This treatment is now being studied for its potential.
Even after decades of fighting against the deadly virus, Muyembe said, "I was surprised by the sheer size of the resurgence in Guinea in late 2013. We thought Ebola epidemics could be brought under control quickly. These countries (in west Africa) believed that Ebola was a central and eastern African problem. They weren't prepared. The epidemic has now ended in Liberia, and is declining in Sierra Leone. But in Guinea, new cases continue to appear. We need to find the most recent cases, even if they are hidden deep in the forest, because if the disease becomes endemic, it would be terrible for the whole world. In 10 or 20 years' time, this epidemic will return, and we need to be prepared. Ebola can strike anywhere, and we need to be vigilant. The United States and Europe must understand that Africa is their shield."
Muyembe has been awarded this year's prestigious Christophe Merieux award for researchers studying infectious diseases in developing countries. Muyembe said, "I see the 500,000 euros ($550,000) in prize money as a boost to help me study Ebola reservoir hosts. Monkeys, bats, we aren't certain. I have made my career in DR Congo, despite all the conflicts my country has known. We must build up labs and research centers in Africa so that when the danger arrives, we can stop it in time. This is the lesson we must learn from this epidemic."