Emerging Infectious Diseases

In 1976, while the U.S. public was immersed in the Legionnaires' disease investigation, another emerging infectious disease drama was unfolding in Africa. An outbreak of a deadly hemorrhagic fever (characterized by internal and external bleeding and high fevers, among other symptoms) in Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, started in the town of Yambuku, and spread to surrounding areas.

Working with other international scientists and the Zairian government, CDC epidemiologists were at the center of the field investigation. The outbreak was centered in a hospital where the disease was spread by dirty needles, as well as from person-to-person. When most of the staff died, the hospital had to be closed, and the epidemic subsided. The total number of cases was 318, with a mortality rate of 88%.

Blood samples were sent to CDC's "hot labs" in Atlanta for analysis. CDC laboratorians were able to isolate an entirely new virus and to identify it as different from, but related to, the Marburg fever agent. They named this new virus Ebola, after the Ebola River, located not far from the site where it was first recognized.