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What a walk down Ebola memory tells us 0

Antwerp (Belgium) – Forty years ago, the first Ebola blood samples were carried by a Congolese woman in her hand bag from Zaire to Belgium on Sabena Airlines. Yes, you read that correctly. Nothing is the same anymore. Zaire is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sabena airlines — then the national carrier for Belgium — closed in 2001, but its successor Brussels Airlines played again a prominent role in the last Ebola outbreak in West Africa. As you know, this last Ebola outbreak was vastly different from all the ones before.

The spell-binding 40-year history of Ebola was told at the 8th International Symposium on Filoviruses in Antwerp, Belgium, last week (12-15 September).

In 1976, in Yambuku, a small village in Mongala Province in northern Democratic Republic of Congo, a young doctor, Jean-Jacques Muyembe, was ordered by the minister of health to investigate a disease that had killed some people.

Muyembe arrived with a medical assistant. The health workers suspected typhoid or yellow fever. Muyembe examined some sick people and collected blood samples without gloves. His hands and fingers were stained with blood but he just washed it off with water and soap. In addition, he collected liver samples from three nurses who had died.

The disease was nothing they knew. Sadly, the nurse and medical assistant died in the next few days but Muyembe was saved — not by the ‘moon suit’ but by water and soap.

A Congolese woman who was travelling to Belgium on Sabena Airlines was asked to drop the samples off at the Institute of Tropical Medicine (ITM) in Antwerp, where Muyembe’s friend was working.

The Ebola samples arrived in Belgium in September 1976 where Guido van der Groen, a top researcher at ITM, helped identify the virus and found that it was similar to the Marburg virus isolated from monkeys in Uganda.

Muyembe was informed about it and warned that it concerned a very dangerous new virus. They then tried to give the new virus a name. At first they opted for Yambuku where the index case was discovered but they soon realised that if you use the name of a town it will cause too much stigma. Then they looked for any landmark near Yambuku and found a river which is why Ebola is now named after a river near Yambuku.

The Ebola forty-year journey has seen 25 outbreaks by now, 30,900 cumulative cases and 12,800 deaths. A new book by van der Groen titledOn the trail of Ebola details this history.

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By Esther Nakkazi

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Direttore Responsabile Giuseppe Frangi