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International shield

2014 has seen more than its fair share of dramatic and disturbing international events: Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Hong Kong and the ongoing tensions in the South China Sea. But all of those may pale into insignificance compared with the situation unfolding right now in West Africa.

The Ebola virus was discovered 38 years ago by a team of microbiologists, including Peter Piot who flew out to the disease-striken village of Yambuku in Congo (then Zaire) to help quell the first recorded outbreak. With Ebola now posing a global threat, he is interviewed by Rafaela von Bredow and Veronika Hackenbroch for Spiegel Online.

Back in 1976, Piot and his colleagues were unaware of just how dangerous the virus was – and came close to infecting themselves:

“…my boss at the time wanted to bring our work to conclusion no matter what. He grabbed a vial containing virus material to examine it, but his hand was shaking and he dropped it on a colleague’s foot! The vial shattered…”

Luckily they survived to both identify and name the virus:

“We definitely didn’t want to name the new pathogen ‘Yambuku virus’ because that would have stigmatized the place forever. There was a map hanging on the wall and our American team leader suggested looking for the nearest river and giving the virus its name. It was the Ebola River. So by around three or four in the morning, we had found a name. But the map was small and inexact. We only learned later that the nearest river was actually a different one. But Ebola is a nice name, isn’t it?”

Piot would go on to spend several decades working on another once-obscure African virus – HIV. Could the current Ebola outbreak develop into something as devastating as the AIDS pandemic?

“This isn’t just an epidemic anymore. This is a humanitarian catastrophe. We don’t just need care personnel, but also logistics experts, trucks, jeeps and foodstuffs. Such an epidemic can destabilize entire regions. I can only hope that we will be able to get it under control. I really never thought that it could get this bad…

“Sierra Leone experimented with a three-day curfew in an attempt to at least flatten out the infection curve a bit. At first I thought: ‘That is totally crazy.’ But now I wonder, ‘why not?’”

Piot believes that Europe and North America are relatively safe because though Ebola may have mutated into a more dangerous form, it still requires physical contact into order to spread. We therefore ought to be able to organise the necessary preventative measures.

However, other parts of the world could be more vulnerable:

“I am more worried about the many people from India who work in trade or industry in West Africa. It would only take one of them to become infected, travel to India to visit relatives during the virus’ incubation period and then, once he becomes sick, go to a public hospital there.”

In other words, Ebola has global implications which would affect us indirectly – even if we stop an epidemic from spreading in our own countries.

Ebola therefore provides an answer to those who argue that the overseas aid budget is a luxury we cannot afford. Our ability to bring emergency relief and basic levels of medical care to the poorest parts of the world isn’t just an act of charity on our part, but also a first line of self-defence.

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