London School of Tropical Medicine director Piot gives a boots-on-the-ground account of the global struggle to contain two potentially devastating pandemics: Ebola hemorrhagic fever and AIDS.
The former U.N. undersecretary general and director of UNAIDS describes himself as a “privileged witness and actor in the history of two of the most extraordinary adventures of our time.” Growing up in a small Flemish farming village, his concern to “work for greater social justice and to travel” led him to choose infectious diseases as a medical specialty, despite advice from a professor who claimed that contagious diseases were mostly under control. In 1976, as a newly minted doctor and microbiologist, he was working in an Antwerp laboratory when they received samples of the then-unknown Ebola virus. There was a deadly outbreak in Zaire, and he was sent there to work with an international medical team to discover its mode of transmission and learn more about its characteristics. The major cause of the contagion was faulty sanitation in hospitals and in preparations for funerals; thankfully, public-health measures ultimately contained the virus. In addition to chronicling his work with the disease, Piot graphically describes the government’s corruption and the impoverishment of the population. Six years later, AIDS surfaced as a disease apparently restricted to gay men, but cases began emerging of men and women in Africa and elsewhere who were not gay but exhibited symptoms of the disease. Blood donors and drug users were also being infected. At an international conference, Piot connected with U.S. infectious disease specialists from the National Institutes of Health. Through these contacts, he was able to procure American and European funding for “a second trip to Zaire that changed [his] life.”
An absorbing memoir in which the author learns to combat deadly diseases and maneuver in the international political scene.