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Wednesday, March 29, 2017


Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe-Tamfum treated the first cases of Ebola before the disease even had a name.

Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe-Tamfum treated the first cases of Ebola before the disease even had a name.

No one is safe, he warns wealthy countries

By Hannah McNeish

KINSHASA, Congo ― In early 2014, few people worried that the Ebola virus, which is up to 90 percent fatal, would pose a global threat. So the World Health Organization sent shockwaves around the world when it announced that Ebola was spreading out of control in West Africa.

Before the epidemic was over two years later, it had killed thousands of people. They died in terrifying and painful ways, often passing the disease on to family members before and even after death. Doctors and aid workers died, people who should have been able to stay safe while offering care.

But not everyone who is exposed to the Ebola virus, which spreads through contact with blood or other bodily fluids, falls ill. Such is the case of Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe-Tamfum, who in 1976 became the first scientist to come into contact with Ebola and survive.

The Congolese virologist, now 74, placed himself squarely in the path of the disease as he worked in harrowing and hazardous conditions to identify what was killing some of its earliest victims.

“I am like Johnnie Walker,” he quipped, referencing the well-known Scotch whiskey slogan, “Born 1820 ― Still going strong.” Muyembe giggled as he strode around his office imitating the brand’s iconic “Striding Man.”

It’s a joke in service of a very serious message from a doctor who has spent years battling the worst viruses. Don’t make the same mistake, he warns, that the world made with Ebola when it first arose. Don’t ignore the threat because it seems far away.

Muyembe, who now leads the Democratic Republic of Congo’s National Institute for Biomedical Research, had been home from studying in Europe just a few years when he received a phone call in 1976 that would change his life forever.

“The minister of health rang and said, ‘There’s a mysterious disease that’s killing people at the Catholic mission in Yambuku in Equateur province. I’m going to send you there to find out the cause.’ I was the country’s only virologist,” Muyembe recalled.

The mission hospital was more than 600 miles northeast of the capital city of Kinshasa, deep in a thick forest. Muyembe set off overland in a jeep with a military colonel who was also an epidemiologist. It was “a real adventure,” he said. All they were told was that there was a suspected outbreak of yellow or typhoid fever.

But when they arrived in Yambuku, the hospital was deserted. They went to sleep at the mission and woke to a very different scene.

Three nurses and one woman had died at home overnight, and the hospital was now full of patients ― some pushed there on bicycles, many feverish ― after word had gone round that doctors had arrived from Kinshasa.

Muyembe examined and drew blood from the sick and dissected the dead to take tissue samples ― all with bare hands. Later, he would shudder at the thought of how much contact he’d had with feverish patients, many of whom didn’t stop bleeding after he withdrew the needle or scalpel.

“The blood would pour out all day. My hands were covered in blood. I didn’t have gloves,” he said.

Muyembe thinks that what saved him from death that day, and the many others when he handled infected samples with no protection, was his speedy request for soap and water. But luck must have played a role too.

"The blood would pour out all day. My hands were covered in blood. I didn’t have gloves." Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe-Tamfum

When a nun fell ill ― with fever and red marks on her body ― Muyembe and his colleague told the mother superior that they wanted to take the samples they’d collected and the sick nun back to Kinshasa. 

The nun initially refused to go ― she didn’t want the community to think she was running away ― but she relented after Muyembe insisted. Another sister accompanied her on the journey to Kinshasa, so they were a group of four squeezing together in various planes and cars.

Continue reading: The Huffington Post-

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