The U.S. Is Sitting on Promising Ebola Vaccines; the Disease Is Spreading Faster and Farther, but Lack of Funds and Short Attention Spans Keep a Cure at Bay

By Schlanger, Zoe; Wolfson, Elijah | Newsweek, August 15, 2014 | Go to article overview

The U.S. Is Sitting on Promising Ebola Vaccines; the Disease Is Spreading Faster and Farther, but Lack of Funds and Short Attention Spans Keep a Cure at Bay


Schlanger, Zoe, Wolfson, Elijah, Newsweek


Byline: Zoe Schlanger and Elijah Wolfson

Ebola was once thought to be a intermittent scourge limited to the bush of Central Africa. The virus would jump from its animal hosts to a nearby community eating those animals, but these outbreaks flared up and quickly "burned out," killing about 1,600 people over the nearly four decades since the first case was identified in a Sudanese factory worker in 1976.

But now, with easier travel and more permeable borders, an Ebola outbreak has spread from rural villages to populous hubs where it has never been before, like Guinea's coastal capital of Conakry, a city of some 2 million, where it is likely to become endemic. "Before this outbreak, Ebola was not known to be present in Sierra Leone, in Liberia, in Conakry. But it is now present there," says Stephen Morrison, the director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "If it recedes, it does not mean it is not present. You will see more outbreaks. It will be recurrent."

It's spreading faster and farther than ever before. One American who contracted the virus, Patrick Sawyer, 40, would have boarded a plane to Minnesota had he not died in Lagos. He had flown from Liberia to Ghana to Togo before arriving at Nigeria's largest city. That's five countries in one trip, with countless new pathways to infection along the route. Modern borders are as porous as the number of flights, goods and people that cross them, which is to say they are extremely permeable. Viruses are along for the ride, spreading farther than they ever have.

On August 2, an American infected with the virus was flown to the U.S. His transport was delicate--staff covered head to toe in nonporous hazmat suits placed the patient in an isolation pod for the flight. From the airport, he was transferred to Emory University in Atlanta, which has one of the country's four specially equipped isolation wards and staff specifically trained to handle highly infectious disease. A second American patient is expected to be similarly flown from Africa to Atlanta on August 5.

The two Americans, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, were both health care workers who had been volunteering in Africa. Somehow, despite wearing full hazmat suits while working with Ebola patients, they contracted the disease that, as of this writing, has killed a suspected 826 people in four countries over the past six months in the most deadly Ebola outbreak in history.

And yet, despite much hyperventilating on network news and social media about the transport of these Ebola victims, Brantly and Writebol will almost certainly not bring this deadly plague to America. And even if they did, the consequences would be minor. "If [Ebola] were to appear in the U.S., it would stop very rapidly in its tracks. The whole dynamic of transmission of this virus doesn't exist here," says Ian Lipkin, the epidemiologist and Columbia University professor credited for identifying West Nile virus as the cause of a 1999 encephalitis epidemic in New York City.

Unlike H1N1 swine flu, which killed as many as 575,400 people across 74 countries during a 2009 pandemic, Ebola is not airborne. It is spread only by bodily fluids. By the time people become contagious, they are extremely ill and would quickly come under medical care (at least in the U.S.). Also, with a "good culture of infection control, blood and bodily fluids would be handled in the correct manner," says Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician at the University of Pittsburgh who analyzes threats and response plans for hospitals. Ebola would be contained like Lassa fever, another virally transmitted hemorrhagic fever, which has reached the U.K. eight times since 1980 and has been snuffed out without anyone becoming infected or the public even paying much mind.

News about the spread of Ebola, on the other hand, could never be buried. Nightmarish images of blood-spewing people dying horrible deaths while their internal organs are destroyed have been seared into our brains. …

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