Ebola Resurgent in West Africa as Health Authorities Seek Answers and a Vaccine

Ebola virus seen under a microscope with epidemic sign

July 20th, 2015

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By CHHS Research Assistant Jules Szanton

Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone are confronting a resurgence of Ebola after several encouraging months when the virus seemed to be nearly extinguished from West Africa.  Public health experts suspect a number of factors are leading to a rise in the infectious disease.  The resurgence lends new urgency to the effort to develop and test an Ebola vaccine, a badly needed tool in the struggle against the highly infectious disease.

By late spring, the West African Ebola outbreak seemed to be under control.  The World Health Organization declared Liberia to be Ebola-free on May 9, 2015.  Guinea and Sierra Leone—which, along with Liberia, are among the countries most devastated by the current epidemic—have yet to fully rid their countries of Ebola.  In April, however, President Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone spoke hopefully of a “battle to get to zero cases,” and Guinean health authorities seemed to have fought the virus to a standstill.

Since then, however, the situation has worsened.  The virus has returned to Liberia, where 11 people are currently being treated.  Last week, Guinea and Sierra Leone reported 13 and 14 new cases respectively.  Disturbingly, the virus is once again being transmitted in those countries’ capital cities—places where the virus had previously been eliminated.

Experts are still unsure what is behind the Ebola resurgence, although anecdotal reports suggest that the disease is being transmitted to humans from infected dogs killed by hunters.  West Africans have traditionally hunted bats, monkeys, rodents, and dogs as bush meat.  This presents dangers, since Ebola can infect humans who come into contact with bodily fluids of infected animals.

Public health authorities also worry that the resurgent disease could be coming from pockets of territory where they incorrectly believed that Ebola had been eliminated.  In places where Ebola is transmitted from person to person, health workers often contract the disease after coming into contact with an infected patient’s bodily fluids.  Similarly, mourners at traditional West African funerals who touch or wash an Ebola victim’s dead body are at risk of transmission.

A third possibility is that Ebola is being transmitted sexually.  The virus stays in a survivor’s semen for months after he is symptom free, which means that the virus could be transmitted by patients who had seemingly recovered.

Ebola’s resurgence is the latest indication of how difficult it is for public health authorities to eliminate a highly contagious viral disease without a vaccine.  For years, researchers seeking an Ebola vaccine struggled to attract funding from government and private-sector sources.  The current outbreak, which began last year, has spurred several attempts to create a vaccine to protect against Ebola.  Just this week, a team of researchers at the National Institutes of Health and the University of Texas found that an inhalable Ebola vaccine was effective in monkeys.  There is, of course, no guarantee that the vaccine will be effective on human patients.

Until a vaccine proves successful in human patients, public health authorities will continue to struggle to contain the Ebola outbreak.

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