Ebola: Past, Present and Future - UNDERSTANDING and NAMING the EBOLA VIRUS

UNDERSTANDING and NAMING the EBOLA VIRUS (Illustration) Famous Historical Events Social Studies World History STEM Medicine Disasters Awesome Radio - Narrated Stories

This 1976 photo, online via the CDC's Public Health Library, depicts health-care providers in Yambuku (together with the virus hunters who investigated the previously unseen microbe eventually called "Ebola"). Included in the image are Dr. Peter Piot (in the multi-colored shirt), from Antwerp's Institute of Tropical Medicine, and Dr. Joel Breman (kneeling, in the dark-blue shirt) from the CDC. Click on the image for a better view.


Peter Piot and his colleagues canvas Yambuku and the nearby villages, putting a series of questions to the villagers. Their purpose is to understand why this strange virus is spreading and killing so many people.

Getting answers to their questions, the medical team learns:

  • The outbreak seems closely related to the mission hospital;
  • More young women are getting sick than men;
  • Many of the young women are between the ages of 18 and 30;
  • Many of those young women were expecting babies and had received pre-natal treatment at the Yambuku Mission Hospital;
  • Due to limited supplies, the hospital allots five syringes per day;
  • Those same five needles are reused on different patients throughout the day.

So ... one way the virus spreads is from contaminated needles.

But ... there is something else which the investigators notice. People are getting sick after they care-for dead bodies and attend funerals.

This means the virus must still be active even after a patient dies of the disease.

Although they still do not understand the virus itself, Piot and his team immediately recognize they can do some things to stop its spread.

We systematically went from village to village and if someone was ill they would be put into quarantine. We would also quarantine anyone in direct contact with those infected and we would insure everyone knew how to correctly bury those who had died from the virus.

The mission personnel were right, therefore, to quarantine themselves. So were many of the local village elders who had imposed their own quarantine rules which they’d strictly enforced.

After three months in Yambuku, Peter Piot and his colleagues had learned much about the virus which still had no name.

So ... how did the name “Ebola” come about?

We didn't want to name it after the village, Yambuku, because it's so stigmatizing. You don't want to be associated with that.

Instead, the team decides to name the virus after a river. Looking at a not-very-detailed map of Zaire, the closest river they can see, to Yambuku, is the Ebola River.

The virus now has a name—Ebola—named after a tributary of the mighty Congo.

Returning to Antwerp, with some answers and a name, the medical team still does not know much else about the virus. For example:

  • How does it work?
  • Is there a cure?
  • Can they develop a vaccine?

For the moment, all they really know is something about how Ebola spreads and how it can be contained.

That is not enough to prevent future outbreaks.

Original Release: Nov 20, 2014

Updated Last Revision: Jun 02, 2016

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