Keynote Lecture | Gilles Van Cutsem

Session - G.Cutsem - photoDr. Gilles Van Cutsem was born in Belgium but it is in tropical climates that he operates nowadays, both as a Medical Coordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), in South Africa and Lesotho, and as an Honorary Research Associate at the Centre for Infectious Disease Epidemiology and the Research of the University of Cape Town.

Dr. Van Cutsem obtained his Bachelor of Science in 1993 at the Faculté Notre Dame de la Paix, in Namur, Belgium, his Medical Doctor degree in 1997 at the Catholic University of Louvain in Brussels and, one year later, his Diploma in Tropical Medicine at the Institute of Tropical Medicine, in Antwerp. He then moved to South Africa, where he obtained a Master’s Degree in Public Health & Epidemiology, in 2008, at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. He first worked for the MSF in 1998 as a Flying Doctor, where he worked in Southern Sudan, Angola and Mozambique, before joining the Khayelitsha TB/HIV project in June 2003, of which he became coordinator in 2007.

Humanity vs. Ebola

The first Ebola outbursts appeared in 1976, in a village situated near the Ebola River, from which the disease takes its name. These previous outbreaks were short, self-controlled, with less than 500 cases in rural areas, contrasting with the one that appeared in March 2014 in Guinea, that came to affect four rural districts and the capital, Conakry. Health care workers identified it as the Zaire Ebolavirus, the most aggressive and deadly strain of the virus. MSF called it an “unprecedented Ebola epidemic”, launching an emergency response that included activities in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the three most-affected countries, as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and Mali.

On 21st June 2014, Ebola was considered out of control, with active transmission in more than 60 locations, and, on 30th July, it crossed the ocean with two infected Americans. On 8th August, WHO finally declared Ebola a “public health emergency of international concern”.


This large scale epidemic required a greater intervention of international organizations, unmasking some of their fragilities. Dr. Van Cutsem will tell us better than anyone what were the challenges they had to face while fighting this crisis, from the scarce resources and lack of experience in dealing with Ebola to the inefficient and delayed international response and the roadblocks created by many academic medical centres.

This devastating epidemic happened nearly 40 years after the first discovery of Ebola, leaving us the strong lesson that there is no functional global response mechanism to epidemics in countries with fragile health systems, as there is a clear gap between public commitments and direct action.

Since the beginning of the epidemic, 10,356 patients were admitted to MSF’s Ebola treatment centers, 5,226 were confirmed to have the disease, 2,476 of whom recovered.

In August 2014, MSF build the largest Ebola management centre in history with 250 beds in Monrovia, ELWA 3, which could only be opened for 30 minutes each morning, where a few people could be admitted to fill beds made empty by those who had died overnight.


During the Ebola Epidemic, in 2014, Dr. Van Cutsem became the Emergency Medical Coordinator for MSF’s Ebola response. Currently, he is the HIV & TB Adviser for the Southern African Medical Unit (SAMU) and his interests include the implementation of pragmatic strategies to reduce TB and HIV-related mortality and morbidity, as well as maternal and child mortality. He believes that research needs to go hand in hand with activism and advocacy to achieve a higher impact in politics. His unique role played at MSF during the Ebola crisis makes him an extraordinary person and it is impossible not wanting to hear his experience during the last outbreak.

For more information on the Ebola crisis, take a look at some of the FRONTAL’s articles on the subject:


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