The ITM was initially set up as a School of Tropical Medicine aimed at treating tropical diseases and training medical staff. Today it is the national reference centre for tropical diseases and is taking the lead in Belgium's response to the present Ebola crisis. The ITM's job is to advise the Belgian government on the best response to the Ebola crisis. It also plans to play a crucial role in scientific research to combat the disease.
It was here in Antwerp in 1976 that the Ebola virus was first identified. The team working at the Antwerp Institute of Tropical Medicine at the time included microbiologist Peter Piot and Guido van der Groen. They received a thermos flask from Kinshasa in Congo that had been entrusted to a Sabena pilot. The thermos contained two blood samples from a sick nun. Congolese doctors assumed the nun had come down with yellow fever, but weren't sure. They sought confirmation from Antwerp. One of the vials got broken on the way, but when the scientists examined blood from the second intact vial under an electro microscope they discovered an as yet unknown virus.
Together with American scientists Peter Piot, who later headed the United Nations' anti-AIDS agency UNAIDS and today is the director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, travelled to the epicentre of the 1976 outbreak in and around Yambuku in Congo. The ITM was also called in when the disease broke out in the Kikwit area of Congo in 1995.
Until now Ebola outbreaks have only occurred in remote settings, but today with the disease affecting the capital cities of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone the scale of the epidemic is on a quite different level.
The Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp is Belgium's national reference centre for tropical diseases and is taking the lead in the present Ebola crisis. It will advise the government on its response to the present crisis. Dr Erika Vlieghe, the infectiologist who heads the ITM's hospitalisation unit at Antwerp University Hospital, has been appointed as Belgium's Ebola Commissioner. Dr Vlieghe is Antwerp University's Head of Tropical Medicine. Part of her job is also to ensure that health professionals and the public at large get the right information about Ebola.
Several Belgian hospitals including Antwerp University Hospital, Leuven University Hospital and Saint-Pierre University Hospital (ULB) are prepared to treat suspected cases of Ebola. Tests to confirm any diagnosis can be carried out at the ITM. The Institute has the most highly secured labs in Belgium. The Antwerp Institute is equipped with a BSL3 laboratories i.e. labs that meet the second highest bio safety levels. The institute reserves a specific area to the diagnosis of Ebola with even stricter safety measures, such as the use of protective gear. Scientists will wear full protective gear for testing when genetic material is extracted from a sample to allow analysis by molecular technology after genetic material has been multiplied to achieve enough to identify the virus.
The Institute is also dispatching staff to the West African countries struggling to contain the outbreak, in support of organisations such as Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and the European Mobile Lab that tests for Ebola in order to confirm cases. The ITM team consists of doctors, lab technicians and even anthropologists. The Institute is convinced of the importance of working with people in partner countries. For public health issues to be addressed they believe it is crucial to understand the attitudes of the people concerned for any public health initiative to be a success and that also includes the fight against Ebola.