“I would sit next to an infected person on the train,” said Professor Peter Piot, whose credentials include the title of former Under Secretary-General of the United Nations, former head of UNAIDS, and now director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Speaking with the AFP news agency, he pointed to a lack of trust in authorities in West Africa as a major contributor to the world’s largest ever outbreak in the region.
Recent troubles in Sierra Leone and Liberia, which has seen over 224 and 130 fatalities respectively since February, have hindered efforts to tackle the virus, he said.
“These countries are coming out of decades of civil war,” he said. “There is a total lack of trust in authorities, and that combined with poverty and very poor health services I think is the explanation why we have this extensive outbreak now.”
Piot was a 27-year-old researcher working in Antwerp when he discovered Ebola in 1976. He was sent a blood sample from a Catholic nun who had died in what was then Zaire, and is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
He later visited Yambuku village, north of the modern-day capital city of Kinshasa, where an epidemic raged. The majority of infections were among women aged between 20 and 30, and centered around a pre-natal clinic.
The virus, they discovered, was being spread through the reuse of infected needles on pregnant women, as well as through the funeral preparation process.
Although four decades have passed since Ebola was discovered, there are no licensed drugs or vaccines for the deadly disease. Some are being developed, but none have been rigorously tested in humans.
A Canadian company, Tekmira, has received a $140 million contract and given fast track designation by the U.S. government to develop an Ebola vaccine. An early test of the shot in healthy humans was stopped recently after the Food and Drug Administration asked for more safety information.
Also this week, the West Haven, Connecticut based NanoViricides, announced it was restarting its anti-Ebola virus drug development program.
While the current epidemic is the largest recorded, the number of people sickened by Ebola is small compared to the number killed by other diseases like malaria or dengue.