This summer, a small Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was quickly and effectively contained — clear proof of how much scientists have learned about the deadly virus since it appeared in 1976.
The most recent outbreak occurred in a province that neighbours a small village called Yambuku, where the disease first reared its head.
When Ebola started to kill patients in a missionary hospital, a Flemish nun was infected and samples of her blood were sent to Belgium. Scientists soon realised they were dealing with something unknown.
After a harrowing experience with the virus in the lab, Peter Piot, a 27-year-old doctor who was one of the first to examine Ebola, left his pregnant wife in Belgium and set off for the Congo, then called Zaire, to track down the source of the outbreak. There he joined researchers from around the world in a terrifying hunt for the origin of the disease.
We still don’t know what the original host of Ebola was, and the highly contagious disease continues to threaten devastation in the areas where it appears. Between 2014 and 2016, the world saw the biggest and most complex Ebola epidemic ever.
Piot wrote about his experience travelling in the Congo in his book “No Time to Lose: A Life in Pursuit of Deadly Viruses.” Using photos from the CDC’s Public Health Image Library, we’ve illustrated the team’s first several expeditions.
Upon his arrival, Piot was swept through the airport -- avoiding customs, because his passport wasn't valid -- and rushed to meet the others who planned to track down the virus' source. He's wearing the colourful shirt in the photo below.
Stories of birds dropping out of the sky, sick with fever, and of human bodies by the roadsides had terrified pilots who at first refused to fly the team to the closest airfield in Bumba, a town of 10,000 on the edge of the epidemic zone.
After some cajoling, pilots agreed to drop the team and their Land Rover off if they could immediately depart for safety. Hundreds of scared locals surrounded the plane upon arrival, hoping for a way out, but military police beat them back.
Piot wrote that by the time they left for Yambuku, 'my natural scepticism began to fall away, replaced by doom.' He was convinced by 'the evident fear of the pilots and the townspeople of Bumba and their desperate attempts to flee the town.'
The roads between Bumba and Yambuku were almost impossible to use, 'barely more than a sinkhole of mud and water, with entire sections washed away by the torrential equatorial rains,' he wrote.
In Yambuku, they found the mission and hospital. The nuns had tried to shut everything down and had posted a sign on the guesthouse where they slept warning that 'anybody who passes this fence will die.'
The team set out to search nearby villages for victims of the disease. Some were untouched, while others had seen entire families wiped out.
Some villages had built barricades at their entrances, setting up a quarantine system -- something village elders had learned to do during smallpox epidemics in the past.
As Piot and another doctor examined an infected couple in one small hamlet, the man died as they drew blood from his wife. Afraid that locals might think they were responsible, they departed quickly, explaining that villagers should not wash the body as was common during funeral rituals.
The doctors checked mosquitoes, pigs, and cows, trying to find the source of new infections. They examined seven bats and 123 rats. Investigators even pureed 818 bedbugs from infected sites, but none carried any trace of the virus.
The hospital yielded a tragic clue. Many Ebola victims seemed to be pregnant women. The nuns had been giving pregnant women vitamin shots and reusing infected needles. 'Almost certainly,' Piot wrote, 'they had unwittingly killed large numbers of people.'
The team determined that Yambuku was the outbreak's center. One of the first survivors was the wife of the headmaster of the local school. Her husband had been one of the first casualties. He'd returned from the forest carrying monkey and antelope carcasses before showing signs of infection. As far as anyone knows, he was 'patient zero,' potentially having caught the infection from the dead monkey. From there it spread through bodily fluids, including blood on the reused needles.
Later the doctors set up a clinic in the area, trying to study the disease and spreading the word to local villages that victims should not be touched without protection. Team members obsessively monitored their own temperatures.
While drinking bourbon one night, the researchers looked at a poorly drawn map and saw the Ebola River nearby. It turned out not to be as close as they thought, but that's the name they chose. They'd been calling the disease the Yambuku virus but did not want to stigmatised the village further.
It wasn't long before they had to evacuate an infected Peace Corps doctor. They put him in one of the first negative-pressure isolation units ever designed, which traps both virus and person 'for the duration of our treatment, or our few remaining days alive,' according to Piot.
Del Conn, the Peace Corps doctor, turned out to be OK. Many other viruses show symptoms similar to Ebola's initial flu-like symptoms.
By flooding the area with resources, the team was able to provide enough medical treatment for those infected as well as food and other resources for those trapped in the region.
Though they didn't know what they were dealing with at the time, they were able to avert a bigger disaster.
The CDC representative with Piot's group thought the original outbreak could lead to 'potentially the most deadly epidemic of the century.' It didn't -- but disease experts still say that it's possible another virus or other pathogen could emerge and cause an even more dangerous epidemic.
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