When I was 27, when I was not yet fully formed, I had the opportunity that any aspiring microbiologist dream to discover a new virus, investigate its mode of transmission and prevent its spread. It all started when my laboratory at the Institute of Tropical Medicine Antwerp received a blood sample from the country was still called Zaire. This sample was taken from a Flemish nun, died of yellow fever. At least that's what we thought.
Our laboratory showed that this sample contained a previously unknown virus. Once this discovery validated by the Centre for the control and prevention of diseases, Ebola was named in reference to a river located 100 km north of Yambuku, the starting point of the epidemic. This virus would be one of the most deadly that humanity has ever known.
Mabalo Lokela, the director of the school Yambuku died in early September 1976 following a high fever associated with lightning diarrhea and bleeding. His death shook the community of the small Catholic mission. Soon the hospital was filled with patients suffering from the same symptoms: they nearly all died in less than a week.
This event was actually the first signs of the Ebola outbreak, a virus which is the vector of contamination bats. Four known strains are dangerous to humans, the most lethal being that called "Zaire" and that the mortality rate reaches 90%. Transmission between individuals occurs either via contaminated injections, contact with blood and body fluids, or sex, and the virus was probably transmitted between mother and child. About a week after infection, infected individuals develop severe fever, accompanied by diarrhea and vomiting. They bleed and suffer from "disseminated intravascular coagulation" small clots form in all blood vessels in the body and cause disruption of the functioning of the organs. The death comes a week after the first symptoms.
At Yambuku on the 318 people diagnosed as carriers of the virus, 90% died. That is to say, more than half of the medical team at the hospital and 39 people from 60 families living in the mission. The whole area was devastated and some villages lost one lives on only 11 due to Ebola.
Back to Bumba
Ride in a C130 Hercules in the direction of Bumba in 1976 was less complicated than making a commercial flight in 2014, even if it meant loading in cargo plane a Land Rover, medical equipment and barrels of essence.
On the plane, there was with us a Zairian, a U.S., one French and two Belgians many jokes begin like that. However, pilots were awful mood. They did not like having to fly an epidemic area. Their colleagues were they told that the birds fell from the sky around Yambuku and that the bodies were lined up along the roads? On landing, the plane suddenly stopped and drivers are not out of the cab. They did not even want to stop the engines. They wanted to take off as quickly as possible and avoid contact with local populations.
Out through the rear door of the aircraft, I saw hundreds of people watching us in silence. Hundreds of people, silent, watching us out the back door of the plane. They then cried when we left the Land Rover. We were the first to break the quarantine set up around the area and people were convinced that we were going to stop the infection, bring food and medicines. As soon as the plane unloaded, drivers shouted " Good luck! " and took off.