Epidemics and pandemics

  • Public healthPre-empting flu evolution may make for better vaccines

    Influenza is a notoriously difficult virus against which to vaccinate. There are many different strains circulating — both in human and animal populations — and these strains themselves evolve rapidly. Yet manufacturers, who need to produce around 350 million doses ahead of the annual flu season, must know which strain to put in the vaccine months in advance — during which time the circulating viruses can evolve again. An international team of researchers has shown that it may be possible to improve the effectiveness of the seasonal flu vaccine by “pre-empting” the evolution of the influenza virus.

  • EbolaScientists identify weak spots in Ebola’s defenses

    Scientists have identified weak spots on the surface of Ebola virus that are targeted by the antibodies in ZMapp, the experimental drug cocktail administered to several patients during the recent Ebola outbreak. “The structural images of Ebola virus are like enemy reconnaissance,” said one of the scientists involved in the research. “They tell us exactly where to target antibodies or drugs.”

  • EbolaUsing data to fight Ebola

    The current Ebola outbreak is the largest in recorded history, claiming more victims than all previous twenty major outbreaks combined since Ebola was discovered in 1976. Governments and the private sector are using the latest data technology to process, store, and analyze information and communication records from Ebola-stricken countries to help locate and predict the spread of the disease.

  • EbolaEbola’s ‘other’ victims: how the outbreak affects those left behind

    By Paul Munro and Greg van der Horst

    Media coverage of the growing Ebola epidemic in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia has presented world audiences with apocalyptic predictions of ultimate death tolls and grisly imaginings of its spread to other shores. But we’ve heard little about the people left behind. What impacts has the epidemic had on their livelihoods? For many among the twenty-five million people of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, Ebola is not just an epidemiological terror, it is also a socioeconomic disaster. Dealing with setbacks in achieving regional development priorities is both secondary to, and dependent upon, coping with the immediate effects of near-total economic shutdown. The Ebola crisis thus presents a cruel paradox. Efforts desperately needed to contain the infection of thousands are simultaneously causing major, and in some cases severe, economic hardship for a population of millions. The international Ebola response will need to continue well after the crisis has faded from world news reports.

  • EbolaThe economics of Ebola

    By Catherine de Fontenay

    Economists are being called upon to estimate the costs of the Ebola epidemic to West Africa and elsewhere. Economists, however, should also play a part in estimating the likelihood of the disease spreading. Economics is the study of incentives, and many biological models of the spread of the disease may be underestimating the impact of individual incentives. Based on cost-benefit analysis, the potential costs of Ebola spreading are extremely high and the risks may be much higher than they are currently portrayed. Voters and donors should support greater efforts to end Ebola in West Africa. As International Monetary Fund director Christine Lagarde says, “real action” is needed to counter the outbreak. Without such action Ebola places the global economy at risk.

  • EbolaU.S. will not see an Ebola epidemic – not even a serious outbreak: Scientists

    Twenty-five years ago, the United States experienced its first Ebola outbreak in a Reston, Virginia primate facility which shipped animals to research labs throughout the country. Jerry Jaax, one of the scientists who worked at the primate facility at the time and who is now an associate vice president for research compliance and university veterinarian at Kansas State University, believes that the United States is well prepared to handle the Ebola virus. “We won’t have an epidemic or even a serious outbreak,” said Jerry Jaax. “The thing about it is we’ve got a zero risk tolerance bar that we set that says we can’t afford to have one person get infected or it’s a disaster. You can’t ever say never in biology and there are a lot of wild cards thrown in there, but I think basically the United States is ready.”

  • EbolaEbola discussion in U.S. driven by fear, not science: Infectious disease experts

    A significant part of the Ebola debate in the United States has been driven by fear, not science, according to infectious disease experts. Despite assurances from public health officials, the general public continues to be fearful of an Ebola outbreak in the United States. Some states have imposed mandatory quarantines for all healthcare workers returning from Ebola-stricken West Africa, even if they show no symptoms.”The fear is trumping science,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

  • EbolaUse of Ebola virus as bioterror weapon highly unlikely: Experts

    Francisco Martinez, Spain’s state secretary for security, claimed that ISIS fighters are planning to carry out “lone wolf” attacks using biological weapons. He cites conversations uncovered from secret chat rooms used by would-be militants. Bioterrorism experts say the use of Ebola for bioterrorism is highly unlikely. “Assuming a terrorist organization manages to capture a suitable Ebola host, extract the virus, weaponize the virus, transport the virus to a populated city and deliver the virus, it is entirely likely that the sub-optimal climatic conditions of a Western city will kill it off relatively quickly,” says one expert.

  • EbolaFast-spreading killers: how Ebola compares with other diseases

    By Mick Roberts

    The West African outbreak of Ebola has claimed more than 4,800 lives and this number is sure to rise. There is understandably a lot of fear about Ebola, but how does it actually comp re with other fast-spreading infectious diseases? While bubonic plague is bacterial, all of the other infections mentioned below – influenza, Bird Flu, SARS, Ebola, and HIV/AIDS — are viral. Yellow fever was the first human virus to be discovered in 1901. Since then more than 200 have been recognized. Ebola has all the epidemiological characteristics of a containable infection, but it is only now spreading to developed countries that have no experience of dealing with it. The desirable strategy, from global health and humanitarian perspectives, is to eliminate the epidemic at its source.

  • EbolaFunding cuts hamper health agencies’ ability to prepare for, respond to Ebola

    Federal and state funds for local health agencies have been cut over the past few years, so when hospitals and municipal health agencies are asked proactively to respond to possible threats of Ebola, many question how they will fund such activities. Since 2008, at least 51,000 state and local public health jobs (roughly 20 percent) have been lost due to cuts in federal funding.

  • EbolaEpidemics do not require long-distance travel by virus carriers to spread

    The current Ebola outbreak shows how quickly diseases can spread with global jet travel. Yet knowing how to predict the spread of these epidemics is still uncertain, because the complicated models used are not fully understood. Using a very simple model of disease spread, UC Berkeley biophysicist Oskar Hallatschek proved that one common assumption is actually wrong. Most models have taken for granted that if disease vectors, such as humans, have any chance of “jumping” outside the initial outbreak area — by plane or train, for example – the outbreak quickly metastasizes into an epidemic. Hallatschek and colleagues found instead that if the chance of long-distance dispersal is low enough, the disease spreads quite slowly, like a wave rippling out from the initial outbreak. This type of spread was common centuries ago when humans rarely traveled. The Black Death spread through fourteenth-century Europe as a wave, for example.

  • EbolaU.S. will see between 1 and 130 additional Ebola cases by end of 2014: Experts

    Top U.S. medical experts studying the spread of Ebola predict a few more cases will reach America before year’s end, citing the return of healthcare workers currently working in West Africa as the most likely cause of new cases. Using data models that weigh several variables including daily new infections in West Africa, global airline traffic, and transmission possibilities, top infectious disease experts predict as few as one or two additional infections and as many as 130 by the end of 2014.

  • EbolaRate of infection in West Africa has begun to slow down

    Public health officials monitoring the Ebola epidemic in West Africa say the outbreak may have reached a turning point in which transmissions may have begun to slow down. Dr. Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, the organization funding a series of fast-tracked trials of Ebola vaccines and drugs, says that although the virus will continue to infect people in the months ahead, “it is finally becoming possible to see some light.”

  • Infectious diseaseInfection outbreaks, unique diseases on the increase since 1980

    Ebola has a lot of company. In a novel database now made publicly available, researchers found that since 1980 the world has seen an increasing number of infectious disease outbreaks from an increasing number of sources. The good news, however, is that they are affecting a shrinking proportion of the world population. The number of infectious disease outbreaks and the number of unique illnesses causing them appear to be increasing around the globe, with more than 12,000 outbreaks affecting forty-four million people worldwide over the last thirty-three years.

  • EbolaLack of federal authority makes fashioning coherent national Ebola policy difficult

    Earlier this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC) issued new guidelines on how states should deal with travelers from Ebola-stricken regions, but a lack of federal authority to mandate such guidelines has led to conflicting strategies, varying from state to state, which includes mandatory at-home quarantine for some travelers. Under current U.S. law, the states have the authority to issue quarantine or isolation policies, and they also control the enforcement of these policies within their territories.