Ebola Epidemic Kills First of Many in Africa Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

First appearing in Zaire and Sudan in 1976, Ebola erupted several times thereafter, most notably in the mid-1990’s, when the disease killed hundreds of people in Gabon, Zaire, and Sudan. Other outbreaks continued to occur, usually in equatorial Africa, with major epidemics occurring in 1995-1996 in Zaire, and one beginning in 2000 in Uganda. Other minor outbreaks have also occurred.

Summary of Event

First appearing in Zaire and Sudan in 1976, Ebola erupted several times thereafter, most notably in the mid-1990’s, when the disease killed hundreds of people in Gabon, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and Sudan. By the early years of the twenty-first century, some two thousand cases of Ebola had been documented. Depending on the particular viral strain, 50-90 percent of those who contract the disease die from it. Ebola Diseases;Ebola Africa;Ebola epidemic [kw]Ebola Epidemic Kills First of Many in Africa (Sept. 8, 1976) [kw]Epidemic Kills First of Many in Africa, Ebola (Sept. 8, 1976) [kw]Africa, Ebola Epidemic Kills First of Many in (Sept. 8, 1976) [g]Africa;Sept. 8, 1976: Ebola Epidemic Kills First of Many in Africa[02520] [g]Congo, Democratic Republic of the;Sept. 8, 1976: Ebola Epidemic Kills First of Many in Africa[02520] [c]Biology;Sept. 8, 1976: Ebola Epidemic Kills First of Many in Africa[02520] [c]Health and medicine;Sept. 8, 1976: Ebola Epidemic Kills First of Many in Africa[02520] [c]Science and technology;Sept. 8, 1976: Ebola Epidemic Kills First of Many in Africa[02520] Close, William T. McCormick, Joseph B. Fisher-Hoch, Susan P.

The first recorded case of Ebola occurred in the mid-1970’s. From August 10 to August 29, 1976, Mabalo Lokela, a Yambuku mission employee, traveled with six others into the rain forest north of Zaire. On returning home, Lokela, who was known as Antoine, complained of illness to the sisters at the mission. He believed his symptoms to be a flare-up of malaria and he was treated accordingly. Two days later, on August 28, another man came into the hospital with severe diarrhea. He was from the neighboring village of Yandongi. Both men had a viral infection that would later be named after a prominent river Antoine had crossed on an earlier trip. By September 5, Antoine was critically ill; he died on September 8.

Between July and September, 1976, in the region spanning from Nzara to Maradi in southern Sudan, an epidemic similar to the one in Zaire began in another tropical area devoted primarily to agriculture. Death rates from the disease in this area were also high.

The root of the epidemics in Zaire and Sudan was two similar strains of the same filovirus, whose looped images under an electron microscope resemble the hook of a staff or the number six. The Zaire epidemic had killed 103 people, a fatality rate of approximately 90 percent. In Sudan, the outbreak was less fatal, claiming 54 percent of its victims. Dr. Joseph B. McCormick of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, calculated that at the height of the outbreak in Yambuku, during September and October, 1976, a patient’s chances of contracting Ebola from a contaminated, reused needle were more than 90 percent. It was later determined that the hospital there was spreading the disease: Of the 103 cases, 72 had been contracted through injections with contaminated needles.

When the first Ebola outbreaks began in the 1970’s, the world was not yet familiar with the phenomenon of HIV/AIDS. Modern science had made great strides in eliminating agents involved in causing epidemics. Ebola, though horrific, was not widespread. Over time, careful laboratory research at various locations around the world, including the CDC, identified the four strains—or variants—of the Ebola virus: Ebola Zaire, Ebola Sudan, Ebola Côte d’Ivoire, and Ebola Reston. With the exception of Ebola Reston, which has only flulike effects, the disease produces startling symptoms.

Ebola is an RNA (ribonucleic acid) virus of the Filoviridae family, named so for its filamentous appearance. The incubation period for the virus is between two and twenty-one days. Ebola hemorrhagic fever begins with flulike symptoms: Fever, headache, joint and muscle aches, sore throat, and fatigue are followed by severe diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pain. A rash, blood-red eyes, and hiccups give way to massive internal and external bleeding. The tissues and organs liquefy, and the patient finally bleeds to death.

A nurse tends to victims of the Ebola virus in Yambuku, Zaire, in 1976.

(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Transmission of the disease is through physical contact, especially with contaminated blood. In isolated villages in Africa, the fever spread rapidly because families there traditionally care for their sick and dying and are therefore in close physical contact with them. In hospitals, the lack of sterile techniques magnified transmission. Dr. William T. Close, who treated patients during the 1970’s Ebola outbreak, published a firsthand account of his experiences in 1995 titled Ebola: A Documentary Novel of Its First Explosion.

Significance

The virus’s physical structure was investigated and its RNA sequenced. Immunological studies have shown that a large number of people in equatorial regions had filovirus antibodies, suggesting that hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola are probably more common than was once thought. It was determined that those dying from Ebola failed to produce an immunological response to the virus. As of the early years of the twenty-first century, a cure for the virus was yet to be discovered. Ebola Diseases;Ebola Africa;Ebola epidemic

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Close, William T. Ebola: A Documentary Novel of Its First Explosion. New York: Mass Market, 1995. A firsthand account of the Ebola outbreak of the 1970’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garrett, Laurie. The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance. New York: Penguin, 1994. Provides an overview of the major agents capable of producing a disease of pandemic proportions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCormick, Joseph B., and Susan P. Fisher-Hoch. Virus Hunters of the CDC. Atlanta: Turner, 1996. An account of infectious viral agents, including a section on the Ebola virus, by two researchers from the CDC.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Preston, Richard. The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story. New York: Anchor, 1998. Sensationalist narrative account of the Ebola outbreaks.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Regis, Ed. Virus Ground Zero: Stalking the Killer Viruses with the Centers for Disease Control. New York: Pocket Books, 1996. Describes the CDC’s study of the Ebola outbreak in 1990’s Zaire.

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