Ebola’s Mysterious Origins

In 1976, a 27-year-old microbiologist in training was part of a team that received a blood sample from Zaire for analysis. The sample was labelled as Yellow Fever, but on further investigation, the scientists suspected it was something else entirely. Doctor Peter Piot says that he was one of the core discoverers of the original Ebola virus, which at the time researchers had been informed was something completely different.

The blood sample, taken from a Belgian nun, was delivered by commercial flight from Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire, now  known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Epidemiologists believed that the disease was initially transmitted to humans in this area.

Film footage from 1976 has recently been uncovered that provides new insights into the horrors that those treating the unknown disease were dealing with. Dr. Piot explains that,at that time, they thought the illness they were handling was Yellow Fever, but he now knows that it was in fact Ebola hemorrhagic fever.

The scientists isolated the virus and analyzed it under a microscope. To their surprise, they found that it was something “completely different” from what they had expected. Perturbed, they sent the samples on to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta for further investigation. It was later confirmed that this was indeed a new virus, not Yellow Fever.

Ebola Virus
Doctor Peter Piot
Dr. Piot, describes investigating the Ebola virus at that time as “a real adventure.” He traveled to Zaire in order to try to uncover the answers to what he considered the three crucial questions; time, place and person?

To answer the question of time, Piot was looking for a pattern that would tell him how the disease progressed. He investigated the place of disease origin and the people who were victims of the emerging epidemic. He looked at the type of person affected by the disease, the age and sex of sufferers to see if there was a pattern to help determine who would be likely to contract it.

The scientists were asking themselves how the disease was spreading, to find out if it was originally transmitted via food, mosquito bites, sexual intercourse, water or another route of transmission. They looked closely at exactly who was sick, and why.

Dr. Piot was surprised to find that in the 1976 outbreak, more women were infected than men, something he describes as “not normal.”The women were also relatively young, between 20 and 30 years old, another anomaly. After some deeper investigation into the culture of the people he was studying, Dr. Piot discovered that this was the age bracket in which women were allowed to become pregnant, and that most of those who were sick had recently visited a local pre-natal clinic.

It became apparent that the clinic was using the same five syringes to inject each patient. Dr. Piot concluded that the epidemic had been caused by women being directly infected with a needle that had previously been used on a person carrying the Ebola virus.

Since 1976, there have been four strains of Ebola hemorrhagic fever identified in humans; the Zaire strain, the Bundibugyo virus, the Sudan virus, and the Taï Forest virus. There is also a fifth strain, Ebola Reston, which has caused death in non-human primates only.

Earlier this year, patient zero for the 2014 outbreak was identified as a two-year-old boy living in the town of Guéckédou. After the death of the youngster on December 6, 2013, his mother and grandmother also became ill and subsequently died from what was then an unknown cause. Their symptoms were nausea, vomiting, fever and diarrhea, all of which are now recognized as being consistent with the Ebola virus.

It is believed that the epidemic affecting West Africa, and now other parts of the world, originated in Guéckédou. Although it remains unclear as to how the disease was initially transmitted, health officials suspect that contaminated fruit was eaten. According to the CDC, there have been 4493 deaths from the Ebola virus  since it was first documented in March this year.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
World Health Organization
The Wall Street Journal