herald

Sunday 17 December 2017

From a deadly find in 1976 to horrors on frontline today

PETER PIOT was a young scientist in Antwerp in 1976 when an airline pilot brought into his lab a blue Thermos flask sent from a doctor in the former Zaire.

It contained test tubes carrying blood from a Belgian nun who had come down with a mystery illness.

When they injected the virus from the blood into mice, the animals died - but the team could not identify it. Before Piot could test further samples, the World Health Organisation ordered that the scientists be sent to a high-security lab in the UK.

As Piot recalled in Germany last month, his boss refused.

"He grabbed a vial containing virus material to examine it, but his hand was shaking and he dropped it on a colleague's foot," he said. "The vial shattered. My only thought was: 'Oh s**t!'"

Thankfully, a leather shoe prevented any contamination and Piot and his team soon flew to Zaire, "intoxicated by the chance to track down something totally new".

They succeeded and later, while looking at a map on the wall, decided to name the virus after a nearby river with a "nice name".

Almost 40 years later, Ebola has become synonymous with fear and death - a microscopic agent of a biological world war. On the front line against it, stand people such as Benjamin Black, a young obstetrician between missions in Sierra Leone.

He is professional when recalling the horrors of the Ebola clinic, but he pauses to compose himself when describing the loss of a colleague to the virus.

"In June, I travelled to Sierra Leone, where one in 21 women of reproductive age dies in childbirth. This was my first mission, and I had my eyes wide open to Ebola; within days I had my first suspected cases," he says.

"I attended a woman who was unconscious and having seizures. It could have been pre-eclampsia, but she was also bleeding from the nose and mouth and came from an area with a high incidence of Ebola.

"It's a difficult decision to isolate a mother, as it limits what you can do as you wait for samples to be tested miles away.

"The woman died before the test came back positive. At the moment there is no recorded case of a baby surviving a pregnant mother who has Ebola.

"After 10 weeks I knew I had to leave. People expect you to celebrate when you get out, but I left with a feeling of guilt.

"I got home to London before healthcare workers were getting infected and people around me weren't worried. Nor should they be - we check for symptoms for 21 days," he says.

hnews@herald.ie

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