Public health

  • 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.

  • AgroterrorismProtecting the U.S. food supply from agroterrorism

    “For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do,” said Tommy Thompson during his 2004 farewell speech when he left his post as U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services. Documents found in a 2002 U.S. military raid on an al-Qaeda warehouse showed that terrorists sought to contaminate the U.S. food supplies. The documents included detailed instructions for attacking U.S. agricultural assets. Researchers at the University of California-Davis’ Western Institute for Food Safety and Security(WIFSS) are studying vulnerabilities of the U.S. agricultural system to the threats of agroterrorism.

  • 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.

  • BioterrorismRicin vaccine shows promise in pilot study

    Ricin is a highly lethal toxin derived from the seeds of the castor oil plant. A dose of purified ricin powder the size of a few grains of table salt can kill an adult. Due to its toxicity and the ubiquity of source material, it’s considered a leading bioterrorism threat. A recent study at the Tulane National Primate Research Center showed for the first time that an experimental vaccine could completely protect nonhuman primates exposed to deadly ricin toxin, a potential bioterrorism agent.

  • 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.

  • SuperbugsSearching for weapons in the fight against drug-resistant bacteria

    Researchers are taking a very close look at bacterial cells in hopes of figuring out how to stop the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria known as CRE, or carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae. Dubbed the “nightmare bacteria,” CRE infections are immune to even the strongest antibiotics and have the ability to transfer that drug resistance to other bacteria. The infections, which can lead to pneumonia, sepsis, meningitis, and more, have a 50 percent mortality rate. “That’s worse than Ebola,” says one researcher.

  • 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.

  • AntibioticsAlternative to antibiotics

    Ever since the development of penicillin almost ninety years ago, antibiotics have remained the gold standard in the treatment of bacterial infections. The World Health organization (WHO), however, has repeatedly warned of a growing emergence of bacteria that develop antibiotic resistance. Once antibiotics do no longer protect from bacterial infection, a mere pneumonia might be fatal. Scientists from the University of Bern have developed a novel substance for the treatment of severe bacterial infections without antibiotics, which would prevent the development of antibiotic resistance.