When Doctor Ian Crozier, an infectious disease specialist working in Uganda, heard Ebola was spreading, he quickly volunteered to fight the virus in Sierra Leone.
Until then, Ebola had never been reported in West Africa. Early cases were misdiagnosed as cholera and corpses were handled normally allowing the virus to thrive.
By mid-2014 the outbreak turned into an epidemic with Ebola spreading across Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Guinea and Liberia.
Swamped with patients, West Africa’s already weakened healthcare infrastructure began to collapse.
The Kenema Hospital quickly turned into Sierra Leone’s largest Ebola Treatment Unit and Dr Crozier became its lead clinician.
“In early September, I developed fever and muscle aches and a severe headache,” says Dr Crozier. “I got out of the unit quickly and notified my team and self-quarantined in my hotel room.”
Dr Ian Crozier with nurses and Ebola survivors in Sierra Leone, September 2014
[Image: World Health Organisation]
After drawing his own blood sample, Dr Crozier got the bad news – he had Ebola. He was loaded into an air ambulance and flown to Emory University Hospital in the United States.
“Within my first week, I developed what we call multi-system organ failure. My lungs failed, and I needed to be ventilated for several weeks with a mechanical ventilator and a breathing machine. My kidneys failed, and I needed to have dialysis for three to four weeks. My brain failed in some ways. I was unconscious for weeks and weeks.”
After a range of experimental therapies and 40 days in hospital, Dr Crozier was declared cured. He thought he had beaten the virus. He was wrong.
Two months after his discharge from hospital, Dr Crozier developed blurred vision and pain in his left eye.
An examination revealed to shocking things – his eye was teeming with the Ebola virus and his iris had gone from blue to bright green.
Dr Crozier’s eye before (left) and after (right)
Incredibly, Crozier once again survived Ebola, but an unsettling thought remained – how could the virus be present in his eye when his immune system had defeated it?
This question lead Dr Crozier to a major finding about how our immune system responds to viruses.
“The eye, in and of itself, is an immunosuppressed area in which the immune system, in a sense, is dialed down. Something about that environment, the virus is able to hijack, or coopt, in a sense, and survive for much longer than it could in other tissues.”
This discovery could help scientists and researchers develop more effective treatments for the deadly virus.
For more on fighting pandemics, watch Breakthrough – tonight (17 November) at 9.00pm on National Geographic Channel.