Discovery and Description of Ebola Zaire Virus in 1976 and Relevance to the West African Epidemic during 2013-2016

Joel G. Breman*, David L. Heymann, Graham Lloyd, Joseph B. McCormick, Malonga Miatudila, Frederick A. Murphy, Jean Jacques Muyembé-Tamfun, Peter Piot, Jean François Ruppol, Pierre Sureau, Guido Van Der Groen, Karl M. Johnson

*Corresponding author for this work

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    Background. In 1976, the first cases of Ebola virus disease in northern Democratic Republic of the Congo (then referred to as Zaire) were reported. This article addresses who was responsible for recognizing the disease; recovering, identifying, and naming the virus; and describing the epidemic. Key scientific approaches used in 1976 and their relevance to the 3-country (Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia) West African epidemic during 2013-2016 are presented. Methods. Field and laboratory investigations started soon after notification, in mid-September 1976, and included virus cell culture, electron microscopy (EM), immunofluorescence antibody (IFA) testing of sera, case tracing, containment, and epidemiological surveys. In 2013-2016, medical care and public health work were delayed for months until the Ebola virus disease epidemic was officially declared an emergency by World Health Organization, but research in pathogenesis, clinical presentation, including sequelae, treatment, and prevention, has increased more recently. Results. Filoviruses were cultured and observed by EM in Antwerp, Belgium (Institute of Tropical Medicine); Porton Down, United Kingdom (Microbiological Research Establishment); and Atlanta, Georgia (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). In Atlanta, serological testing identified a new virus. The 1976 outbreak (280 deaths among 318 cases) stopped in <11 weeks, and basic clinical and epidemiological features were defined. The recent massive epidemic during 2013-2016 (11 310 deaths among 28 616 cases) has virtually stopped after >2 years. Transmission indices (R0) are higher in all 3 countries than in 1976. Conclusions. An international commission working harmoniously in laboratories and with local communities was essential for rapid success in 1976. Control and understanding of the recent West African outbreak were delayed because of late recognition and because authorities were overwhelmed by many patients and poor community involvement. Despite obstacles, research was a priority in 1976 and recently.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)S93-S101
    JournalJournal of Infectious Diseases
    Publication statusPublished - 15 Oct 2016

    Bibliographical note

    Funding Information:
    Financial support. This work was supported by the Fogarty International Center at the National Institutes of Health.


    • Discovery of Ebola Zaire virus
    • Ebola in 1976 and 2013-2016
    • Ebola virus disease


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