Scientist who identified Ebola virus says epidemic will be long

Peter Piot, Professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, at press conference in Geneva (Tuesday Sept. 7,) on Ebola crisis (John Zarocostas, McClatchy)
Peter Piot, Professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, at press conference in Geneva (Tuesday Sept. 7,) on Ebola crisis (John Zarocostas, McClatchy) McClatchy

The scientist who’s widely credited with discovering the Ebola virus said Tuesday that the world finally was “waking up” to the epidemic sweeping West Africa but that the situation remained dire and was nowhere near being contained.

“This outbreak has become a real humanitarian crisis, which will go on for quite a while,” said Peter Piot, the director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, after chairing a World Health Organization review of the Ebola outbreak that’s sweeping Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

Piot, a Belgian who co-discovered the Ebola virus in 1976, even raised the prospect that patients who aren’t infected with Ebola are dying because the outbreak has so compromised the health care systems of those countries.

“It’s not impossible that more people are dying from treatable conditions that are not Ebola because normal health care facilities have either been abandoned or swamped with Ebola patients,” he said.

The WHO review included 15 of the world’s top Ebola experts, who gathered – some by teleconference – to map out how to confront an epidemic that many fear is growing exponentially in countries that don’t have the financial or scientific resources to confront it. Now that the world is responding, how to make use of those resources has become a major issue.

“The challenge now is to coordinate that,” Piot said.

At least 3,481 people had died in West Africa as of last Friday, the WHO reported. Another 7,400 have been sickened in an epidemic that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said could see 1.4 million cases before it ends. One of those cases, a Liberian man who traveled with the disease to Dallas, was detected in the United States. Another was reported in Spain, where a nurse who treated a missionary who’d been evacuated to Madrid from Sierra Leone contracted the disease. The missionary died Sept. 25.

The illness has taken an alarming toll among health care workers: 382 have been infected, of whom 216 – 56 percent – have died.

“Many health facilities are empty,” Philippe Calain, a virologist with the aid group Doctors Without Borders, said of reports he’d received from the group’s doctors in the region. That’s because so many health personnel have been infected and the fear many people have of seeking care at facilities that in West Africa have become locations for the spread of disease.

“That is not good,” he said.

Piot , a former head of the global agency UNAIDS, said health care personnel who were treating patients in Ebola intensive-care units remained at high risk. “The slightest mistake can be fatal,” he noted.

Piot said more testing laboratories were needed to speed diagnosis of the disease. The United States has sent five mobile labs to the region, and Piot said China and Canada had each sent one, with Canada planning to dispatch a second one.

Contributions of medical personnel have come from Cuba, China and Uganda, said Fadela Chaib, a WHO spokeswoman.