A Photo of Terror
It was a photograph of a terrifying new disease. Just some flowing strands of genetic material, strangely graceful in the micrograph. It was almost beautiful, not seeming at all like something that could condemn its victims to a bloody and brutal death within two weeks.
It was the first look the world had of the Ebola virus, and it was taken on 13 October 1976.
The first two recorded outbreaks of Ebola virus occurred in an overlapping manner. The first, in Nzara, South Sudan, dragged on amongst workers in a cotton plant between June and November 1976.
The second, in Yambuku, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), began 26 August 1976.
This was all new; victims would present with unmanageable headaches, fevers, body aches, and – most horrifying- hemorrhages inside and outside of the body that can leak from various areas of the body. No one had any idea what to do, how infectious the disease was, or even WHAT the disease was.
Jean-Jacques Muyembe-Tamfun was a doctor and epidemiologist in Zaire. He was also the first scientist to survive encountering Ebola, and the person who managed to get the samples to the Centers for Disease Control in America.
The package arrived with the tubes holding the highly contagious samples of blood and tissue crushed and the fluids absorbed into the protective cotton padding. Lab personnel managed to squeeze a drop of the fluid into monkey kidney cells, where they proliferated and Frederick A. Murphy was able to take a photo through a microscope.
Five months after the first recorded instance of Ebola virus, the world finally knew what the viral enemy looked like.
Advances have been made – there is now a vaccine against the Zaire strain of Ebola virus. No officially sanctioned treatment exists, but there are accepted practices for treatment.
But there are still outbreaks, still a 25-90% death rate. Ebola is still terrifying.