(First published in October 2014 in Solidarity; also included is a critique of an article by Paul Vallely criticising the response of the West to the Ebola crisis)
From a scary but rare problem, Ebola Virus has exploded into public consciousness as a real disaster in West Africa and a potential threat to anywhere else connected by any means of travel. Where has it come from and why is it now such a problem?
Back in 1976, a new virus was discovered in a group of villages in the equatorial forests of Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo). Victims suffered fever, pain, vomiting, diarrhoea, and massive internal bleeding (haemorrhage): 70% died. A young Belgian microbiologist, Peter Piot,* examined blood samples from an affected woman, a nun from a mission, and found large worm-shaped viruses of an unknown kind. It was similar to Marburg virus (discovered 1967), which also caused a haemorrhagic fever with high mortality. They were both members of the Filoviridae family of the order Mononegavirales, most of which cause serious plant and animal diseases.
Piot went with a team to Zaire to find an epidemic that was out of control. To stop it, they needed to know how the virus was spread. Mapping the distribution of cases implicated the local hospital: the fact that many victims were women who had attended the antenatal clinic was even more suspicious. It turned out that they had received routine injections but with re-used needles: the virus thus spread in blood or body fluids. Other cases were among attenders at funerals who had taken part in washing or preparing bodies for burial.