Fairfax Man Helped Contain Ebola in 1970s - NBC4 Washington

Fairfax Man Helped Contain Ebola in 1970s



    News4's Jackie Bensen spoke with Gary Cook, who as a young foreign service officer was tasked with helping coordinate an international response to the first outbreak of Ebola in 1976. (Published Wednesday, April 8, 2015)

    A Fairfax County man still has a wooden medallion as a memento of the successful containment of the first known outbreak of Ebola in 1976.

    Gary Cook was a young foreign service officer when he was tasked with helping coordinate an unprecedented international response to a disease ravaging the small village of Yambuku, in what was then Zaire.

    At the time, the unknown virus had no name. A team of scientists and physicians flew in from around the world to treat the illness.

    "It fell to this team to actually name the virus, since it was determined that it was a new virus and it needed a new name," Cook said.

    "And we knew that if we named it Yambuku after the village, that village would be forever stigmatized. We didn't want that," he said. "So we heard about a river that was not too far away, called Ebola. And that became the name of the disease." 

    Lessons from the 1976 outbreak are the subject of an article titled "Ebola Then and Now," published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine and illustrated with photos taken by co-author Dr. Joel Bremen.

    It describes the early teamwork by Zaire's own medical community, coupled with hands-on clinical work by international physicians, nurses and scientists who had earned the trust of patients and their families.

    Gary Cook remembers them as heroes.

    "We had the 18 come in from the Centers for Disease Control, and I still remember the names of those heroes," he said. "They were dedicated and as young as I was, many of them."

    Cook says it wasn't until much later that he realized the magnitude of what they had dealt with.