Yambuku, Zaire, 1976. A new disease was spreading through the population. Patients were overcome by headaches and bloody diarrhea. The disease was spreading through entire families and wiping them out.
Eight hundred and twenty-five kilometers to the northeast, a similar epidemic was reportedly raging across the border in Maridi, Sudan. Were these outbreaks connected? Despite enormous challenges trying to navigate both the logistics of crossing a landscape of unpaved and unmarked roads, as well as the political difficulties of an attempt to enter and collect samples in an area marked by recent civil strife, samples were finally collected and shipped to the World Health Organization for testing.
All told, these outbreaks caused 602 cases and 431 deaths. The Zaire outbreak wasn’t stopped until the hospital was closed, because 11 of its 17 workers (65%) had died of the disease. Investigators went door-to-door in 550 villages in the Yambuku area to find and isolate new cases. Roadblocks were set up to restrict access to the area.
In Sudan, a number of cases were traced to workers in a cotton factory (probably due to bat exposure) and their families. The epidemic increased when one case went to the Maridi hospital, and the virus then was transmitted within that hospital. Note what the write-up describes:
“The hospital served as an efficient amplifier from which the virus was disseminated throughout the town. The number of cases gradually increased until mid-September and at the end of the month there was a large number of cases, particularly in hospital staff. The number of cases declined in early October, possibly as a result of the use of protective clothing. A considerable increase in the number of cases was observed in late October and early November, which may have been partly due to a lack of protective clothing when supplies ran out in mid-October.”
In Maridi, the doctor-in-charge, along with 61 members of the nursing staff came down with Ebola. Thirty-three of them died. Eight additional deaths occurred among the ancillary and cleaning staff. This outbreak was only contained because, again, the hospital was made safer via extensive training and the use of good personal protective equipment, and cases were identified in the town by going door-to-door. Buy-in from local officials was obtained, which is critical–while families may not trust outsiders, they more often will listen to local leaders. Cases were isolated in their homes or taken to the hospital. Eventually every village in a 30-mile radius from Maridi was screened, and the outbreak burned out.
Now imagine you’re looking at this in real time, via 24-hour news networks, from halfway across the world. You’re hearing news reports of cases spiking. Healthcare workers are contracting the disease. You don’t have all the information but you’re coming to your own conclusion that the virus must be mutating in Sudan.
You would, however, be wrong. These outbreaks were actually separate epidemics (and led to the identification of Zaire ebolavirus and Sudan ebolavirus, respectively), but collectively, that was a lot of Ebolavirus disease in 1976–the most deadly single year for Ebola until 2014, in fact. It took an enormous effort on the ground in these two areas to stop the outbreak.
Though not wholly analogous to today’s West African epidemic, there are lessons here to take away. There is a steep learning curve for dealing with Ebola. Besides the single case from the Ivory Coast, Ebola has not historically been a West African disease. Liberia, and Guinea and Sierra Leone in particular, do not have a great history of governmental stability, and are still recovering from civil wars, government coups, and a general lack of stable national leadership. Infrastructure is also substandard, as early reports on the main hospital in Conakry, Guinea noted. Each country seems to be dealing with this largely on their own without solid cross-border cooperation, and since the borders tend to be flexible in any case, patients and those incubating Ebola have been able to travel and move the virus into new areas. The public in general does not understand the disease, and in some cases keeping doctors out with knives and machetes, accusing physicians of murdering their loved ones and bringing Ebola to their villages.
It’s reasons like this–structural and sociological issues, by and large–that have led the WHO to declare the outbreak to be “out of control.” As far as has been reported, there is nothing particularly notable about the virus itself, which is very closely related to previous Zaire ebolavirus isolates. The infection rate in healthcare workers–about 60 out of 1300 total cases reported at the time–is actually quite low, given the conditions they’re working in and the lack of experience most of them would have had with Ebola. (Again, in Sudan, it was 61 out of 284 cases–so 21% of the total cases were doctors and nurses–versus about 5% in this outbreak).
The outbreaks in these countries are bad currently, but for the future, we can look at Uganda as a model. The first outbreak in that country, beginning in 2000, resulted in 425 cases and 224 deaths. The second outbreak in 2008 resulted in 149 cases and 37 deaths. In 2011, they had a single case with no secondary spread. In 2012, 11 cases and 4 deaths. 2012, 6 cases and 3 deaths. It’s probably impossible to stop Ebola from spilling over into the human population, but Uganda has done a great job responding. They are able to do early detection of suspected cases in their biosafety level 4 lab in Gulu. They alert local authorities if something is suspected, then send a task force to assist with containment. They communicate effectively with the public about what they can do, and how effective treatment in hospitals can lower the mortality rate. They work with community leaders when a quarantine needs to be put in place. These things can all be employed in West Africa as well, but it takes time and a lot of commitment to get such networks up and running. We need this cooperation as much as we need PPE and even more than we need “secret serums,” because it is only with prevention of new cases that this epidemic will finally die out.