Magazine article Science News

DNA Clarifies Ebola Outbreak's Origin: West Africa's Epidemic Stems from Just One Infected Person

Magazine article Science News

DNA Clarifies Ebola Outbreak's Origin: West Africa's Epidemic Stems from Just One Infected Person

Article excerpt

Genetic data confirm that the Ebola epidemic in West Africa is being spread from human to human, not through contact with infected animals.

The findings emphasize the need for better public health measures to keep the epidemic from spreading more widely among people rather than devoting more resources to tracking down animal reservoirs.

Genetic analyses also reveal that the Ebola virus strains infecting people in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria originated in Central Africa in 2004, an international group of researchers reports August 28 in Science. The team sequenced the genomes of 99 Ebola viruses isolated from 78 patients during the first three weeks of the outbreak in Sierra Leone. Patterns of mutations in those viruses confirm epidemiological evidence that a healer who traveled to Guinea brought Ebola back to Sierra Leone. Mourners at his funeral became infected and spread the disease to others.

Analyzing viral DNA this quickly from an ongoing outbreak would have been unthinkable even five years ago, says Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Md. Back then, it might have taken two years to compile and analyze the data, but these researchers did it in two months. "Now, as we're living through it, we're able to trace the spread of the virus," he says.

There is no indication that animals are infecting people, the researchers show. That finding supports evidence that the West African outbreak probably stemmed from a single instance of a person becoming infected, possibly from eating contaminated bushmeat, with the virus passing from person to person since then (SN Online: 8/11/14).

Ebola is known to have first struck humans in 1976 in the Congo, and the virus that caused the disease was dubbed Zaire ebolavirus for the country's name at the time. …

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