The Congolese Doctor Who Discovered Ebola

Short Wave


At the beginning of an epidemic, it's essential to discover the source of the disease. For scientists who do that work, it's extremely challenging and without risk to their own health. But the scientists who played an essential role in discovering bulla way back in nineteen, seventy six doesn't always get the credit he deserves in today's episode. We explore the history of a bowl and the consequences of scientific exploitation. It's part of our week of episodes here on the show celebrating and recognizing the contributions of black scientists enjoy. You're listening to shortwave. From NPR. Safai here with none other than NPR East Africa correspondent Ater, Peralta Hey there ater. Hey, Mattie, thank you so much for talking to us all the way from Kenya. I know there's like an eight hour time difference. I am thrilled. But I want to open with a quick question. Who discovered Ebola and do not Google it. First of all. How dare you asked me a question? I should definitely know the answer to, and don't and yeah I already, Google Bet. Came up was. A Belgian microbiologist, but I think you're about to tell me. There's more to this there. Absolutely, there always is right so. Cheated. What you probably saw is a bunch of white westerners like. Dr John Jack. Yembeh does not yeah. He was not one of the people that came up. Yes, so, he's Congolese doctor and today he's doing really important work heading up the response to the current Ebola outbreak in Congo, but back in nineteen, seventy six, we embed. First doctor to. COLLECT ANY BOLA sample. His crucial role in discovering Bolla is often just a footnote, a lot of the history of people. Has Been Written? Without your name. Yes but. You know this Yes it. Did Not quite. Today on the show correcting the record on a Bola, the story of Dr, John Jack Mugabe and what he's doing now to ensure African scientists are part of writing it's. To some in the medical community, it's a controversial move. Okay Ater, so we're talking about a Congolese Dr John, Shaq. And his role in discovering a bola. When do we begin? So when I sat down with him at his office in Kinshasa. He said we should start in. Hundred seventy three. We had just gotten his PhD microbiology at the Riga Institute in Belgium, and he could have stayed in Europe, but he decided to come back to Congo, but when I arrive via. The condition of work were not I had no lab have no. Mice for experimentation, so it was very difficult to work here. Yeah, it's tough to do lab work without a lab, you know. Without a library to instead he took a job as a field epidemiologist and just a couple of years later in Nineteen seventy-six. was sent from Kinshasa the capital of Congo to the village of Yambuku to investigate a mysterious outbreak. it's the first recorded outbreak of Ebola, but no one knew that at the time they thought maybe it was typhoid or yellow fever, and he goes to this local hospital, and he says he finds it completely empty. Why was nobody there? Local residents thought the hospital was the source of the infection and people had died there. But in the morning when they heard Giambi was sent from the capital, the thought he had medicine till they started to come back to the hospital, and we started seeing patients. So so, what's he seeing? When the patients come in, he was seeing. People who were very weak fever? They had headaches I started to to make the physical time. But at that time will have no gloves. And, of course he had to draw blood, but when I removed. They're the sit inch. Both continue to spread out. What I am to see these phenomenal. And also my fingers or with a bow. Wow. Yeah, so he says he he would wash his hands a lot, but really he says it was just luck that he didn't catchable. Yeah, definitely I mean. That's amazing that he's in there and there's no gloves and there's patients and they don't really know what's going on, and he was able to not get it in at this point. We MP he was startled. But then three nurses died that night and a Belgian nun who was working in the village, also got sick with fever. All the nuns had been vaccinated against typhoid and yellow fever. So at this point me MBA was like. Oh, it's probably not those things. Yeah! I mean in the severity to the deaths with this outbreak. He started to realize that this was something different, so he. He convinced one none took back to Kinshasa with him. So what happens next? She died at a hospital a couple of days later, but he took blood samples, and he sent them to Belgium for testing and the guy on the other end that was Peter Piot. Who at the time was with the Institute for Tropical Medicine in Belgium, the guy who turned up from Google search. Yeah. That's right, and so he and other scientists start working to identify the culprit. The CDC in the US gets involved and the realize. This is a new virus that caused hemorragic. Call it Ebola. They name it after a river by the village where it was discovered. So, what you saw out in the field, the blood samples guide all of this plays a crucial role in the history of right. It was huge, but it's PR who gets the bulk of the credit for discovering all up and you can tell this bothers John Jock membe. If you don't recognize the work done in the field, I, it is not correct. it is a team. You know it is a team. Pr Actually wrote a memoir no time to lose and he does mention. But just in passing as a bright scientist, whose constantly pestering him for more resources. Has talked about this well. Peter Pyatt, facetime video, so I got on the phone. He's now the director of the prestigious London, School of Hygiene and tropical medicine and I asked him if he felt at all responsible for writing. Out of his history of Ebola I think that's a comment, but my book less not an attempt to write than that's history of Boll and sold more. My personal experience is more biographies that sense. Was this kind of like an awkward conversation to have ater. Yeah I mean especially because he's Belgian and Belgium was the colonial power in Congo. Ultimately, he looks at it with a little bit of distant. That at the time African scientists they were simply excluded and white scientists parachuted in they took samples, wrote papers that were published in the West and they took all the credit he so he actually said he did. In that actually surprised me and I think. Part of the reason. I feel that he so comfortable. Talking about this is because he's in an academic setting. I think in universities across the world. Students are talking about privilege, so he seems like he is very comfortable having this conversation right now. I mean there's there's something very weird kind of about that coming from him right as a person who has admitted to taking part in exploitative science, absolutely and one of the good things is that he says that things are changing. We mbappe for example has received several international awards just recently for pioneering. The first effective treatment for Ebola reflects our stinky you. Say the politicians in global health in science, General. So okay. I want to ask you about the treatment in a minute, but to put it very bluntly. Have there actually been any concrete steps to try to change this power dynamic in the global health field? Because this is certainly not one of you know two stories. This is one of many many stories. There is I mean look. NBA has made a decision that many thought unthinkable leaving just a few years ago, he decided that all of the blood samples collected during this most recent Ebola. Epidemic will stay in Congo, so if anyone wants to study this outbreak, they will have to come to his institute. I bet that has ruffled some feathers though. I have I've heard from some American scientists. Who have privately expressed frustrations in the are really the ones who have led the way in studying Ebola, but peanut understands that decision when you think about how African scientists have been historically treated, and he says that Western scientists should just get over it. We have to wake up key things one. The world is changing too much endless Nah it's so weird to hear him say a matter of fairness, ater matter of fairness. Okay, so before we move on, tell me about the treatment that Mugabe worked on. So this is the thing that makes him smile right. We embiid calls it the most important achievement of his life, and it goes back to one thousand, nine, hundred, five during another equal outbreak in Congo. Eighty one percent of people infected with Ebola in this village were dying, and he wondered if antibodies developed bipolar survivors could be siphoned from their blood and used to treat new cases, so he gave sick patients transfusions of blood from a bowl of survivors. Too He injected Ebola patients with the blood of survivors. It vision. And seven survive, he says the medical establishment brought him off because he didn't have a control group. That's what they told him. But if this idea was accepted by scientists. We see a lot of life. Okay I mean to be fair. That is a really small group with no control among some other stuff. But on the other hand, it doesn't mean that he was wrong. You know that it should be totally dismissed, and maybe if more scientists looked into, it collaborated with him, maybe tried to replicate that data in some way, they could have learned something with him right because we now know that he was in fact correct about the antibodies. Yeah, I mean that's right in the context is important because I think what really eat set him. Is that maybe lots and lots of people could have been saved during the West. West Africa outbreak, which happened from two thousand, thirteen to two, thousand sixteen, and look just this year that science became the foundation of what is now proven to be the first effective treatment against the Bulla that is saving seventy percent of the people who are treated with amazing. Is He getting credit for that? At this point, he is yeah, absolutely okay, so how does look back on all of this week? What's what's his view on this is so he's he seventy seven, so he's obviously thinking about his legacy. One of the things that he told me is that he's always dreamed that big science could come out of Congo, and partly because of him, that's more likely happen. He got a commitment from Japan to build a state of the art research facility in Kinshasa and in the lab, just a few feet from his office where we talked US scientists were using advanced machines to sequence DNA of the Bulla samples that have to stay here in Congo Okay so moon bay, doctor and scientists who started in the Congo with no lab has a lab and is soon getting an even better one to do his work. Yeah, exactly, yeah, now I have my share. In. So I have my I have. A good subculture will bring joy. But he also has vice rate with micro biologist without Nice, I, asked myself that every day. And, so you know what he says, his biggest legacy won't be that. He helped to discovery or cure for it. It'll be if another young Congolese. Scientist finds himself with an interesting blood sample. He'll be able to investigate it

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