A Brush with Ebola: Danger and the Fight Against Deadly Diseases

Along with her colleagues at Sabeti Lab, computational biologist Pardis Sabeti studies genetics and infectious diseases, working to improve our knowledge and implementation of medical care worldwide. Pardis’ colleague Stephen Gire reports on his experiences in the field.

An artistic rendering of the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The river has taken the shape of the Ebola virus to communicate the ancient origins of the virus. (Photo illustration by Stephen Gire)

By Stephen Gire

“It is said to be extraordinarily painful to lose the surface of one’s tongue.” As I sat awaiting test results outside a lab in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I couldn’t help but remember this gruesome depiction of Ebola from Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone. Just moments before, a lab worker ripped open a plate of human serum from suspected Ebola cases, exposing us both. My imagination animated the horrific scene in slow motion, spraying small particles of blood into the air and dispersing them throughout the room and down into my lungs. I held my breath and backed out of the lab slowly, taking care not to touch anything.

As I waited for the lab results, I asked myself a million questions: why was this lab working with Ebola without proper training? Where were the doctors to assess my risk of exposure? What if the sample tested positive? I felt abandoned in my fear. Maybe this was my quarantine. Would I die here, alone in some isolation ward in the middle of the rainforest? I knew all I could do was put my faith in the diagnosis, and pray that it came back negative.

I would most likely not be here to recount this story if the test had come back positive. Virus hunters and the military rank traumatic events like this on a scale they affectionately refer to as the pucker factor—“the force of contraction exerted on the sphincter muscles surrounding the anus during a given situation of danger.”

Unfortunately, I don’t have a penchant for danger, and I never really wanted to study Ebola. I look back on my life and wonder how I got there—to that old, ramshackle lab in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I remember a colleague who, during my early days at the CDC, fantasized about working with Ebola. I remember thinking she was completely off her rocker. I was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time, somewhere in the remote forests of Africa.

Since that fateful day in Congo, I have spent much of my career setting up scientific capacity in remote regions of Africa and training local scientists to study deadly diseases like Ebola. That’s what compelled me to work with Dr. Pardis Sabeti at Harvard University, and it is what brings me, now, to Sierra Leone—as an Ebola outbreak seems all too inevitable.

An old, burned out building in eastern Sierra Leone depicting the aftermath of the eleven-year civil war. The country has been slow to recover due to severe poverty and disease burden. Photo by Stephen Gire
An old, burned out building in eastern Sierra Leone depicting the aftermath of the eleven-year civil war. The country has been slow to recover due to severe poverty and disease burden. (Photo by Stephen Gire)

Sierra Leone is resilient but threadbare. Slowly recovering from an eleven-year civil war, the majority of people are in deep poverty. Recent cholera epidemics have made it hard for this post-conflict country to recover. Sierra Leone also combats a deadly hemorrhagic fever called Lassa fever. This disease readily infects between 100,000 and 300,000 people each year in West Africa, and so the news of a lethal Ebola outbreak just across the border in Guinea has left the country waiting with bated breath, fearing what this could mean for weary Sierra Leoneans.

“Is there a cure for Ebola? How do you get the disease? Where did it come from?” I was inundated with these questions as soon as I stepped off the plane in Freetown. People were alarmed. In fact, the mere mention of my work on Ebola to airport security expedited me through customs. One man at the customs counter waved me by and declared jovially, “Drink enough alcohol and you are sure to cure any disease!” I think what he was really saying was that none of us really knows what the hell we are doing. I reassure myself that it was only a joke.

To be continued… Check back soon to learn what happened next in Sierra Leone.

Read all posts by Pardis Sabeti


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