Dr. William T. Close, an American surgeon who in 1976 played an important role in controlling the first epidemic of the deadly Ebola hemorrhagic fever in central Africa and preventing it from spreading, died on Jan. 15 at his home in Big Piney, Wyo. He was 84.
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Dr. William T. Close, with his daughter Glenn in 2004, was the physician to the president of Zaire, now known as Congo.
The cause was a heart attack, said his daughter Glenn, the actress.
Dr. Close was both personal physician to President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, now known as Congo, and chief doctor of the army at the time of the epidemic, which caused widespread panic in the country, three doctors involved in helping to control it recalled in interviews. His connections, organizational ability and medical expertise were essential in halting it, they said.
Ebola was a newly discovered viral disease causing severe sore throat, rash, abdominal pain and bleeding from multiple sites, particularly the gastro-intestinal tract.
Medical resources were scarce at the time and under threat themselves. The missionary hospital in rural Yambuku, in the heart of the epidemic, had closed after 11 of 17 staff members died of the disease. Belgian missionary nurses who had been infected at the hospital died after they were transferred to Kinshasa, the capital. Roads were blocked. River traffic and commercial air service stopped. Military personnel shunned the epidemic area.
President Mobutu was rumored to have fled with his family to France. There was fear that infected people fleeing the epidemic could spread the virus to neighboring African countries and elsewhere.
“No more dramatic or potentially explosive epidemic of a new acute viral disease has occurred in the world in the past 30 years,” the commission that investigated and controlled the epidemic wrote in The Bulletin of the World Health Organization in 1978.
Dr. Close’s role in the crisis began on a flight from Geneva to Kinshasa as he was returning from home leave in the United States. Overhearing comments between two epidemiologists sent at Zaire’s request from the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta to help control the epidemic, Dr. Close asked to join in the conversation. The three spoke the entire night flight, said one of them, Dr. Joel G. Breman.
On arrival in Kinshasa, Dr. Close, a man with a take-charge personality, immediately arranged a meeting with the Ministry of Health. He was able to help commandeer pilots and airplanes to ferry equipment to where it was needed. Dr. Peter Piot, a co-discoverer of the Ebola virus, said Dr. Close played “an indispensable” role in controlling the epidemic by using his direct access to Mr. Mobutu to gain political and military logistic support.
Dr. Close had one of the earliest mobile phones, “so heavy it had to be carried by someone,” said Dr. Piot, who recently retired as director general of the United Nations AIDS program.
“He impressed everybody” by commandeering a Zairian Army transport plane to fly a team to the epidemic area and helping to identify capable people to work on the team, Dr. Piot said, adding, “I thought, ‘This man is more than Mobutu’s physician.’ ”
“We, the investigating team, were scared,” said Dr. Breman, who now works at the Fogarty Center at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. But, he said, “Bill was right in the middle, running the hospital in Zaire, assigning aides and making sure the needles, syringes, generators and other equipment were getting to where needed.”
The team broke the chain of Ebola virus transmission by providing protective clothing for hospital workers, sterilizing equipment and strictly isolating patients in their villages. The final tally: 318 cases, 88 percent fatal.
Dr. Close’s efforts also played an indirect role in early studies of H.I.V. a decade later. Tests showed that a high percentage of people in Kinshasa were infected with the AIDS virus. But the rate of infection in rural areas was unknown.
To determine whether the prevalence of the disease had changed over a decade in rural Zaire, Dr. Joseph B. McCormick, a co-investigator of the Ebola epidemic, led another team that tested people in the area in the mid-1980s. In part by comparing rates found in blood stored from a survey in the Ebola region in 1976 to rates from the newer samples, Dr. McCormick said, “we found that the prevalence of infection in the rural area was stable and low at 0.8 percent.”
The AIDS study showed that H.I.V. infection and AIDS could have existed and remained stable in a rural area of Africa for many years. It was one of the rare studies able to compare rates over time in the early period of AIDS and would have been impossible without Dr. Close, said Dr. McCormick, now dean of the University of Texas School of Public Health in Brownsville.
William Taliaferro Close was born on June 7, 1924, in Greenwich, Conn. He was reared in France and educated in British and American schools before entering Harvard in 1941. He left in 1943 to become an Army pilot in World War II.
After his discharge, he earned his medical degree from Columbia University, trained as a surgeon at Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan and soon joined a peace missionary group, Moral Re-Armament, for which he went to Zaire in 1960. There, he had a private practice and directed the 1,500-bed Mama Yemo hospital in Kinshasa and the Zairian national health service.
“He made a real effort to get public health support into rural Zaire,” Dr. McCormick said.
Besides his daughter Glenn of New York City, survivors include his wife, Bettine; two other daughters, Tina Close of Wilson, Wyo., and Jessie Close of Bozeman, Mont.; two sons, Alexander D. Close of Belgrade, Mont., and Tambu Misoki of Sacramento; his twin brother, Edward B. Close Jr. of Littleton, Colo.; and nine grandchildren.
Dr. Close left Zaire in 1977 because he was disillusioned by Mr. Mobutu’s corruption and was losing access to him, his daughter Glenn said. He then became a rural doctor in Big Piney championing hands-on care. He wrote four books, including accounts of his life in Africa and Wyoming. He made his last house call a month before he died, she said.