Right now, check what is popping up on your Twitter trends. Go, look. In between #TGIF (yes, it is Friday and yes, that is amazing) and the most recent Hollywood breakup, there is talk about the West African Ebola outbreak. This is for good reason, because, as the World Health Organization stated, it is by now the biggest outbreak on record. More than 3,000 people in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone have contracted Ebola since March of this year and more than have of those people have died. 40% of these infections occurred in the past three weeks. Let us answer some basic questions about this disaster and look at some possible solutions for this problem.
What is Ebola?
Originally transmitted to humans from wild animals, Ebola is a virus that is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids, such as blood or vomit. The time you get infected and the time you experience symptoms varies a great deal. Some patients feel effects of the virus as early as two days after contraction, while others need 21 days to feel any symptoms, which include fever, muscle pain, headache and a sore throat as well as vomiting, diarrhea, rash, impaired kidney and liver function and in some cases both internal and external bleeding. One of the problems is that people aren’t diagnosed early enough. This is because the belated symptoms resemble those of the mere flu. Victims do not take this seriously and expect the sore throat and headache to simply pass; however, every day is one day closer to death. Many victims are not rehydrated and treated for their symptoms in a hospital (there is no cure) in time and this is the reason for a fatality rate up to 90%.
What are the origins of this current outbreak?
Ebola first appeared in 1976 in two simultaneous outbreaks, in Nzara, Sudan, and in Yambuku, Democratic Republic of Congo. Since then there have been 28 outbreaks worldwide, but the one this year has been the most severe on record. The big question people have is how did this Ebola outbreak occur and where did it come from this time? Maggie Fox of NBC stated that “the Ebola virus outbreak that’s ravaging West Africa probably started with a single infected person, a new genetic analysis shows.” Starting with this one person, who was likely infected by a wild animal, the virus spread from Guinea to Sierra Leone and Liberia.
One thing is clear — it is definitely being spread by people, not by animals repeatedly infecting people, the researchers say. – Maggie Fox, NBC News
A Science Magazine report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science deduced that the particular strain of Ebola that West Africa is battling originates from Central Africa in around 2004. This goes against the popular belief that the particular strain has been around for a much longer time. The way we can track one strain of Ebola is by looking at the virus mutations over time. Scientists use them as a “kind of clock to trace the evolution and movement of a virus.”
What does it look like in the future?
To our disappointment, the Ebola virus only seems to be getting worse. The World Health Organization said that the Ebola epidemic could afflict more than 20,000 people before it could be brought under control. However, despite these numbers, the organization is staying optimistic. Urging for quicker international help and cooperation to control its spread, it presented a roadmap on Thursday to bring the situation under control within the next 6-9 months. While there clearly is some uncertainty about it, the roadmap will at least get us in the right direction. Another way to make sure future Ebola outbreaks will be able to be combated more effectively is by testing experimental vaccines. Many view them as unethical since it is not certain that it will be effective, but Dr. Jeremy Farrar, director of the global charitable foundation the Wellcome Trust, disagrees.
It would be unethical not to acknowledge that potential new treatments could both save lives and reduce transmission in this and future outbreaks – Dr. Jeremy Farrar
The problem with waiting for experimental vaccines until they are not experimental anymore is this: In order for a new intervention to be recognized, it needs to undergo Phase 1, which includes preclinical safety and safety data in healthy volunteers. This can be done and will be done. The problem comes with the required Phase 2, which demands vaccine efficacy data. Other than during an epidemic like that in West Africa, this will not be an easy step. But this can be the chance. If we test experimental vaccines right now during this disaster, we can complete Phase 2 and be as close as ever to finding a good solution. It is risky. People know that. But this might be the chance we need to be able to control the Ebola outbreaks in the future.
In general I believe that this continuing outbreak is a rare opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of experimental drugs, as long as all ethical standards are respected, and as long as it does not create more problems for controlling the outbreak, since medical experiments may decrease even more trust in health authorities and add to hostility to healthcare workers.” – Peter Piot, director of the LSHTM, who co-discovered Ebola during its first outbreak
Only time can tell what future the Ebola outbreak has, but one thing is certain: this is not the last scare. It will happen again and we need to be prepared for that and proactively search for solutions.