"This is not an epidemic. It is a humanitarian crisis" Peter Piot on the implications of Ebola

16 October 2014

© Oxford Martin School

Professor Peter Piot, who co-discovered the Ebola virus in 1976, today gave the opening seminar of the Oxford Martin School Michaelmas Term seminar series.

He said the current epidemic could have been avoided if “countries, communities and the world had taken action four or five months ago”, adding that there was now “no time to lose”.

Professor Piot said that there was no real change in the make up of the virus compared to the 1970s, but that conditions had now created a “perfect storm” for an epidemic. "Not only are we dealing with urban communities, where the virus can spread more extensively, but also many of the countries affected are still emerging from the destruction of war. A lack of health professionals and services make delivering care an extreme challenge. In theory this should be very easy to control but it has got completely out of hand."

He warned that the outbreak could lead to political and social destabilisation in affected countries, where the economic impact had already been “enormous”, with commerce coming to a standstill, societies disrupted and travel restrictions making countries more and more isolated.

Since the start of the outbreak more than 4,500 people have died, and the World Bank has forecast that Ebola could cost the West African region $33 billion over the next two years if it continues to spread. In Liberia and Sierra Leone only a quarter of the hospital beds needed are available, but Professor Piot said large scale medical assistance was now finally on its way. The bigger issues to overcome, he said, were the cultural and social aspects of the outbreak, such as funeral practices, with “massive changes in behaviour” needed to bring it under control.

He praised Medicins Sans Frontiers, whose work had meant that there had only been circa 40 deaths from Ebola up until the current crisis. However, he said that the current outbreak had only been diagnosed after three months, and that it had taken another five to become a globally acknowledged issue.

"The response from the world has been slow and poor," he said, urging governments to learn the lessons and be more prepared for the risk of major virus outbreaks. Key to success in tackling the disease, and future epidemics, he said, would be a financial facility so that aid could be delivered far more quickly, with the Global Fund for Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria the only real option available. He also argued for more action from sub-regional bodies, for national sovereignty to be balanced with public need, and for virus-hit communities to be listened to for their suggestions.

Although he was critical of the slow response to the epidemic, Professor Piot concluded with a note of hope in answer to a question from the floor. "I am very hopeful that a vaccine will be delivered soon. We can expect results of Phase 1 trials by Christmas and then testing into side effects and dosage will follow. The big question will be how to roll out an immunisation programme."

The video of Professor Piot's talk is available to watch here.

The photos from the event are available to view here.