Ebola discovered in Belgium 40 years ago

The Antwerp Institute of Tropical Medicine (ITM) is staging a week-long international conference to mark the 40th anniversary of the discovery of the Ebola virus. Pioneers of the first outbreak in 1976 and heroes of today will be attending the International Ebola Conference from 12 to 15 September.

It was in September 1976 that a thermos flask arrived at the Antwerp Institute of Tropical Medicine (ITM). The flask contained blood samples from a deceased Belgian mission sister in Yamkuku, Zaire who had suffered from a mysterious disease. The samples put Flemish researchers Guido van der Groen and Peter Piot on the trail of a new virus, which would become known as Ebola and that will remain forever associated with Antwerp because of its discoverers.

Forty years later, van der Groen, Piot and other key figures of the first and later outbreaks will reflect on the history, present and the future of the deadly Ebola virus. In 2014, after decades of sporadic and small outbreaks, the largest ever Ebola epidemic threw the deadly virus back on the political and health agenda. A virus that had claimed no more than 280 victims per outbreak suddenly took over 11,000 lives in West Africa. At the conference funded by the Belgian international development department around 250 international researchers and health experts will take stock of emergency research on treatments and vaccines during the most recent outbreak. The lessons learnt from the other outbreaks over the past 40 years will also be on the agenda. The experts will also discuss how health care in Sub-Saharan Africa should be improved to prevent a new epidemic from getting out of hand.

Virologist co-organiser of the conference Kevin Ariën: “Ebola is part of the past and present of ITM. Antwerp is therefore the right place for international experts to meet and look to the future. The main question on the table is what researchers can do to prevent or at least contain deadly outbreaks such as the most recent outbreak in West Africa.”

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