Roy Gilbert

This Congolese Doctor Discovered Ebola But Never Got Credit For It — Until Now

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Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe first encountered Ebola in 1976, before it had been identified. Since then, from his post at the Congo National Institute for Biomedical Research, he has led the global search for a cure. Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe says his story starts in 1973. He had just gotten his PhD at the Rega Institute in Belgium. He could have stayed in Europe, but he decided to come back to Congo, or what was then known as Zaire, which had only recently attained independence from Belgium.

If he had stayed in Belgium, he says, he would have been doing routine lab work. But in Congo, he would be responsible for the “health of my people.”

“But when I arrived here the conditions of work were not good,” he says. “I had no lab; I had no mice for the experimentation so it was very difficult to work here.”

Being a microbiologist without mice or a lab was useless, so he took a job as a field epidemiologist. In 1976, he was called to an outbreak of a mysterious disease in central Congo.

Lots of people had died of something that presented like yellow fever, typhoid or malaria. Muyembe arrived to a nearly empty hospital. He says people thought the infection was coming from the hospital, and he found only a mother and her baby. “I thought that it was malaria or something like this,” he says. “But in the night the baby died, so the hospital was completely empty.”

By morning, as the people of […]

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