On the Trail of Ebola

My life as a virus hunter

Guido van der Groen


The Story of Yambuku is an 18 minute long documentary compiled by co-author Marc Geenen with historical images that were captured in 1976 by virologist and amateur cameraman Guido van der Groen in Yambuku (Zaïre) and with interviews that Marc conducted 20 years later with Dr Muyembe, Guido himself, and two other members of the international research team, Joel Breman and Karl Johnson. The film covers not only the ravages of the first ebola outbreak and the mistakes that were made, but also the resilience and sense of humor which allowed the badly afflicted population to pull through, the investigative team to do its work, and the surviving Flemish sisters to slowly recover from the catastrophe through which they had lived.

Silent clip with colour footage of Guido in the Ngaliema Hospital in Kinshasa, where he built an isolator on concrete blocks. Kinshasa – October 1976. See book page 60.

Silent clip with colour footage of Guido on route to Yambuku. While on board the aircraft team members read a newspaper in which there was an article about Stefaan Pattyn. After a stopover in Mbandaka we met Peter Piot who had been waiting for the aircraft in Bumba, and who helped to load the Land Rovers. A tired Guido disembarks. Mbandaka and Bumba – 16 November 1976. See book page 72.

Exercise with a “pretend” ebola patient, to train personnel in case the epidemic breaks out again after the research team has left. Burning protective clothing. Yambuku environs – 1976.

The Flemish Sister Genoveva talks about images of the derelict Yambuku Hospital. 1976.

Images of the spot where the dead clerics were buried, photos of them, and the desolate atmosphere inside the derelict hospital and vacant mission school of Yambuku. 1976. See book page 74.

Images of a mass being celebrated in Yambuku. An African mass is a festival with song, music and percussion, in which everyone participates actively. 1976.

Margaretha Isaacson draws blood from a recovered ebola patient, for plasmapharesis. Yambuku – 1976. See book pages 63 and 72.

Jocular fragment from a broadcast by the “Yambuku Broadcasting System” which Guido set up to offer some relief amid the misery. In order: Margaretha Isaacson and the villagers at the departure of a helicopter which has brought aid supplies, an announcement by YBS station “anchor” Sister Geno, a “commercial break” with a cartoon by Guido in which appeals are made for antibodies, Karl Johnson in radio contact with Kinshasa, a goat that Guido is obviously tying up, the repair of a bicycle which was used for epidemiological field work and a musical interlude. Yambuku − 23 November 1976. See book page 75.

Black and white enjoy the heavily attended but somewhat chaotic Yambuku vs Yandongi football derby, at which Guido zooms in on a concentrated linesman. After half-time an obvious handball leads to a penalty, which Guido naturally did not wish to miss. He ran across the bumpy field and filmed how the ball sailed perfectly into the top left corner of the goal, following which public celebration broke out. Yambuku 1976. See book page 75.

Arrival of aid supplies, especially the new electrical generator, so large that parts of it must be dismantled before the monster could reach its site. It takes some time, but for the technically and logistically interested observer it can be fascinating. Moreover it lasted much longer in reality! Yambuku 1976. See book page 75.

Silent clip with color images of a colonial-style yet joyful Sunday boat trip on the Dua River. 28 November 1976. See book page 76.

The visibly tired Peace Corps volunteer Del Conn runs a fever and is evacuated to South Africa. Margaretha Isaacson escorts him. Karl Johnson drives Del to the airfield at Bumba. Yambuku 29 November 1976. See book page 77.