Vintage photos show the terrifying first expeditions into the Congo to track down Ebola

Ebola Investigation Team Travels By Jeep To Check Villages Near Yambuku

This summer, a small Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was quickly and effectively contained — clear proof of how much scientists have learned about the deadly virus since it appeared in 1976.

The most recent outbreak occurred in a province that neighbors a small village called Yambuku, where the disease first reared its head. 

 

When Ebola started to kill patients in a missionary hospital, a Flemish nun was infected and samples of her blood were sent to Belgium. Scientists soon realized they were dealing with something unknown.

After a harrowing experience with the virus in the lab, Peter Piot, a 27-year-old doctor who was one of the first to examine Ebola, left his pregnant wife in Belgium and set off for the Congo, then called Zaire, to track down the source of the outbreak. There he joined researchers from around the world in a terrifying hunt for the origin of the disease.

We still don’t know what the original host of Ebola was, and the highly contagious disease continues to threaten devastation in the areas where it appears. Between 2014 and 2016, the world saw the biggest and most complex Ebola epidemic ever. 

Piot wrote about his experience traveling in the Congo in his book “No Time to Lose: A Life in Pursuit of Deadly Viruses.” Using photos from the CDC’s Public Health Image Library, we’ve illustrated the team’s first several expeditions.

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Upon his arrival, Piot was swept through the airport — avoiding customs, because his passport wasn’t valid — and rushed to meet the others who planned to track down the virus’ source. He’s wearing the colorful shirt in the photo below.

Stories of birds dropping out of the sky, sick with fever, and of human bodies by the roadsides had terrified pilots who at first refused to fly the team to the closest airfield in Bumba, a town of 10,000 on the edge of the epidemic zone.

After some cajoling, pilots agreed to drop the team and their Land Rover off if they could immediately depart for safety. Hundreds of scared locals surrounded the plane upon arrival, hoping for a way out, but military police beat them back.

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