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Home » An Unsolved Medical Mystery Sheds New Light on Ebola: Michelle Barnes at TEDxMileHigh (Transcript)

An Unsolved Medical Mystery Sheds New Light on Ebola: Michelle Barnes at TEDxMileHigh (Transcript)

Michelle Barnes

Michelle Barnes – TRANSCRIPT

I’m going to talk to you about the ongoing Ebola outbreak. It started in Guinea in 2013, and has since moved to Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, the UK, Spain, Italy, and even the US.

I’m also going to talk about the next Ebola outbreak. But before I do that, I’d like to talk to you about my friend, Astrid. You see, back in 2008, Astrid and her husband Jaap went on an adventure vacation to Uganda. The draw for them was to see the mountain gorillas. They’d been to Africa before, so they were really excited to meet the people and to see the wildlife.

While they were there, they toured an orphanage, and Astrid felt a strong connection to the children. And she made a promise that she’d do something for them when she returned home to the Netherlands. A few months passed, and the director called Astrid to tactfully remind her of her promise. But Astrid hadn’t forgot the connection and she hadn’t forgot her promise. You see, Astrid had died shortly after returning from her vacation.

Astrid had contracted Marburg virus in a cave in Queen Elizabeth National Park. She’d had an unremarkable contact with a bat in a cave called the Python Cave. So, it’s called the Python Cave, but it’s also the home to thousands of Egyptian fruit bats. Astrid’s connection continued, as her husband Jaap formed an organization to help the children. He’s engaged hundreds of people in keeping her promise alive.

They’ve built schools and done other things to help the villages. Astrid’s story is one of connections. Not just with the children of Uganda, but because of Astrid, we’re on the cusp of a scientific breakthrough. So, if you know anything about Marburg, it might be because of a sensational book called The Hot Zone. It’s about the epidemiology of Marburg and Ebola.

The thing to know about Marburg, is it’s referred to as Ebola’s lethal twin. They both form an exclusive club of single strand filoviruses that have no cure. They cause a really painful illness and death. You can’t do much for somebody that gets Ebola or Marburg. You just put them in quarantine and offer supportive care. And until now, they’ve really only happened in rural Africa. The virus comes into a village. It decimates it. It kills 50 to 90% of the people who are infected. And then, it just flames out.

It goes underground until it pops up again mysteriously to terrorize the next village. The current outbreak has been different. Normally, Marburg and Ebola happen in rural places. But in this case, it’s gone into the cities. And that’s allowed it to move between countries, and move between continents.

Astrid’s case didn’t make the news, but it should have, because this contagious virus was carried to the West in the body of a tourist. A similar thing happened last summer when an American doctor in Liberia contracted Ebola. If you remember, he was evacuated to Atlanta when he was still quite ill. This time, the press could not get enough of it. The African disease had come to us.

It was in our airports, our hospitals, our communities. His story had a happy ending in that Dr Brantley lived. I want to talk to you about another type of outbreak. And this one, I think, is even more powerful than the outbreak of Ebola. And that is the outbreak of fear that has surrounded these viruses coming to the West. Fear is a really powerful thing. And it makes us put compassion to the side. It makes us ignore science. We don’t reach out to people who don’t look like us, who aren’t us.

The people in Africa are scared as well. You know, imagine this, your child suddenly becomes ill, and a Frontline Healthcare worker comes into your home, and they’re wearing a level 4 biohazard bunny suit. And they take your child away, and put him in quarantine. And while it’s not our custom, in these communities, the families prepare the bodies for death, and for burial.

But you can’t do that with an Ebola victim, because the virus still lives in the body. So the people feel like they aren’t even able to say goodbye. And the numbers are devastating. Already 11,000 people have died during this Ebola outbreak. And it’s still growing.

In the West, we’re scared too, but for different reasons. I watched the Ebola outbreak from a unique vantage point. I’m not a doctor, or a scientist, or an expert at infectious disease. And truthfully, science has never been my forte. And in fact, I never met Astrid.

Yet, I see her as a friend. We’re both adventurers with a passion for Africa. We’re both about the same age. And we look enough alike that we could be related. And I also lived in the Netherlands where she was from, for a time. And, like Astrid, I took an adventure vacation to Uganda. And, like Astrid, I visited the Python Cave in Queen Elizabeth National Park. And I also had an unremarkable contact with a bat. And I contracted Marburg. And I, unknowingly, carried this virus home.

I boarded a British Airways flight with multiple stopovers, including an overnight in London, and a visit with my parents in Iowa. And, as I got more and more ill, but before I was admitted to the hospital, I continued on with my life. I went to work. I got my normal Non Fat, Decaf Misto at Starbucks. And I waited for the lab results. And I think it’s fair to say that as my body shut down, I wasn’t thinking clearly. And Marburg only is transmitted through bodily fluids. You can’t catch it through casual contact. But I unknowingly interacted with hundreds of people, including over 250 healthcare workers. My story ended differently than Astrid’s in that I’m here today.

I’m a Marburg survivor. And I carry a unique compassion for the more than 20,000 people who’ve contracted Ebola in the current outbreak. So why do I say Astrid may be responsible for a scientific breakthrough? Well, this web of shared interests have allowed people all over the world to come together around Marburg. So first, I caught Marburg before Astrid. But my case was an unsolved mystery.

That changed the day a journalist friend sent me an article from the BBC about Astrid. It was too much of a coincidence that two westerners had similar symptoms, including multi-system organ failure after a visit to the Python Cave. I contacted my doctor and asked to be retested, and that confirmed I had had Marburg. The World Health Organization, hearing about the case, sent a team of scientists to Uganda. They went to the Python Cave and they made an interesting discovery.

And that was some of the bats in the cave actually were carrying a live Marburg virus. This is a really important point for science, because now we have a natural reservoir for Marburg. They closed the cave to tourists, calling it a hot zone. The CDC then did an investigation into my case, and thankfully, there were no secondary cases. My outbreak began and ended with me.

The hospital put out a press release about my case which led to more connections. Including one where an employee at the National Institute of Health read it, and contacted me, and suggested that maybe they should test me to see if I had antibodies for Marburg. They did, and I did. Another important finding for understanding Marburg: you need to have antibodies from a survivor. Then, a famous author wrote a book about the spillover of viruses from animals to humans, and profiled the cases of Astrid and I.

Again, more connections. While all this was going on, I kept getting contacted by people who wanted samples of my blood and my antibodies for their research. And I was thrilled to be able to help. I wanted to do something, really anything to help. And then came a really important connection.

A doctor read about my case in the media. He had lived in Africa for a while. He was now leading a study to try and find a vaccine for Marburg and Ebola. He contacted me, and the next thing you know, vials of my blood were on a FedEx shipment to Vanderbilt University. And a really exciting thing happened.

His researchers found that my antibodies actually worked to destroy the virus. This is a big breakthrough. They called me a couple weeks ago to give me an update, and they were downright giddy. These researchers have reduced the amount of time that it’s going to take to have an experimental therapy for compassionate use, from what should be more than 10 years, down to about 18 months. So you see, the tide has become a wave.

And not because of fear, but because of connections. Marburg, Ebola, SARS, they’re not going away no matter how scared they make us. In fact, just this week, there was announcements about cases of bubonic plague in Colorado. Ebola was just a dry run. Ebola was just a dry run.

Last year, on the TED stage, Bill Gates said, “We’re not ready for the next epidemic. Our failure to prepare may result in the next epidemic being even more devastating than Ebola.” Because, you see, regardless of race, socioeconomic standing, personality, these viruses are going to transfer to humans. And some of them are going to be Americans I know. I’m one of them.

So, let’s think differently about the next epidemic. Instead of being fearful, let’s practice compassion. Let’s connect like Astrid and all the people I’ve talked about today did. When you’re scared, you don’t naturally think about compassion. You have to practice compassion. You know, people all over the world are preparing for the next outbreak. Hospitals are preparing. Healthcare workers are preparing. Governments are preparing. But we need to prepare as well. We need to practice compassion. We need to think differently. So when you hear about the next epidemic, think differently. Ask how you can help.

Educate yourself and your community. Reach out. Challenge conventional thinking because the solution may not be obvious. Practice compassion. You see, it’s a small world, and I’m living proof that the next deadly virus might just be a plane flight away from home. And we can counter that with compassion and connectedness. Thank you.

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