Why you should care
Because the second most dangerous Ebola outbreak ever could spread quickly if he isn’t successful.
OZY Newsmakers: Deep dives on the names you need to know.
When Jean-Jacques Muyembe returned in 1974 to his home in Zaire, the African country that would later become the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Belgium-trained virologist was flummoxed — because he had no way to practice. There were no labs at the time, nor laboratory animals for experiments.
Unfortunately, he would find plenty of real-world examples soon enough, from a meningitis outbreak in a soldiers’ camp and a cholera outbreak at the Port of Matadi. The most gruesome one came in 1976 when a Catholic mission run by Belgian nuns reported a mysterious disease. Thinking the patients had typhoid fever, he collected blood samples. But when removing the needle from people’s arms, the puncture wounds bled profusely. “My fingers and hands were covered in blood,” he later told the World Health Organization (WHO). It was one of the first known encounters with Ebola, which would later be isolated and named thanks to his work. “If I had not washed my hands, I would have died,” Muyembe said.
Four decades later, Muyembe’s expertise has survived — and is more needed than ever. Nicknamed the “Ebola Hunter,” he has helped manage more than 10 Ebola outbreaks. On Saturday, the 77-year-old was named head of a technical committee to combat the virus by Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi, who took over the post in January. “Having that level of very senior involvement is key, particularly given how much of a global crisis we’re in with this outbreak,” says Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior public health scholar and epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University.
This particular Ebola outbreak is a perfect storm of barriers and challenges.
Joshua Michaud, director of global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation
The creation of the committee and his leadership of it was controversial: in response, the health commissioner Oly Ilunga Kalenga resigned. “There can not be more than one decision-making center at the risk of creating confusions and cacophony that are detrimental to the response,” Kalenga wrote in his resignation letter, according to a translation by the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. Both Kalenga and Muyembe are respected in their fields (experts say Kalenga ran an effective operation that was appreciated for its transparency). Still, some, such as Peter Piot, the director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine who helped discover Ebola with Muyembe, applauded the change. “There is no sign of this epidemic slowing down. We therefore welcome the DRC president’s bold decision to change strategy,” Piot said in a statement.
Since the Congo’s outbreak was declared a year ago, there have been roughly 2,500 documented cases of people with Ebola and 1,700 deaths, making it the second-worst outbreak on record. That led to the WHO declaring it a “public emergency of international concern” on July 18, after receiving the first confirmed case of Ebola in Goma, a city of nearly 2 million people that borders Rwanda. And the situation only threatens to get worse. Unlike past major outbreaks, this one is in a place of intense violent conflict — the eastern Congo provinces of Ituri and North Kivu.
Skirmishes have closed off disease-ridden areas from aid efforts and even led to violence against international health workers. That conflict has also helped foster a distrust of outsiders, exacerbated by political turmoil after the previous president banned citizens from both provinces from voting due to health fears. Some worry that wary locals will refuse medical attention, although WHO officials suggest that vaccine adoption has been high in the areas they’ve been able to access. “This particular Ebola outbreak is a perfect storm of barriers and challenges,” says Joshua Michaud, director of global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Regardless, violence in those regions has complicated the international response, with some health organizations sidelined. Most notably, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States has been ordered by the State Department to withdraw from the region due to security concerns. Nuzzo says she doesn’t want to underplay those concerns but believes they are too easy an excuse for the international failure to rein in the outbreak. “There is a general lack of global leadership in marshaling resources to address the problems.”
Which is where Muyembe comes in, like a weather crew storm chaser of contagious diseases. After his first brush with Ebola, Muyembe didn’t see it again until he got a call about an outbreak in 1995. It was dangerous: because the disease had been found in the town of Kikwit, not a small village, risks of it spreading quickly were greater. “There was complete panic,” he told the WHO last year, but he was able to organize a measured emergency response that brought in global actors. And that expertise will have to work for him as he manages what could be the most damaging Ebola outbreak yet if too little help arrives too late and it begins to spread throughout Africa and beyond.
While he could not be reached for this story, Muyembe’s strategy will likely come from the playbook he helped develop in the mid-2000s. That model is focused on the use of antibodies as the basis for therapeutic medicines, an idea considered risky and experimental in 2004 but which has proven effective. Working in the Congo creates unique challenges, he has noted, from its huge size — 905,000 square miles, making it the second-biggest country by landmass in Africa — to the lack of community engagement in some areas. Working as director-general of the Congo’s National Institute for Biomedical Research, Muyembe has helped build labs in each province and surveillance systems in each of the country’s 516 health zones.
And now the world will be watching him, as the Ebola Hunter uses every weapon at his disposal to keep the outbreak from going global.