Fear Factor

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By Hannah Hoag

Health, Medicine and Veterinary Sciences subject editor

Ebola rivets the attention and incites panic. It is cruel to those it infects. Nearly 2,300 people have died from the virus in the current outbreak in West Africa, and the WHO has warned that as many as 20,000 people could become infected before the outbreak subsides. More people have fallen ill and died in the current outbreak than in all Ebola outbreaks since the virus was first discovered in 1976.

EBOLA_CDC_SEMimage

A scanning electron micrograph (SEM) image of numbers of Ebola virions (Source: CDC/Cynthia Goldsmith; Public Health Image Library).

Last year, I attended an international meeting on emerging infectious diseases. At the time, most of the attendees were discussing MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), but Ebola kept popping up in conversation. “The trick to containing outbreaks is a strong public health system,” said one of the speakers. She could easily have been talking about the current Ebola outbreak that began in Guinea, and has since spread to Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Senegal (a different form of the virus has been detected in the Democratic Republic of Congo).

Ebola is a zoonosis, a disease that can be transferred from animal to human species. It appears to jump from fruit bats to humans, and is emblematic of the inextricable overlap between health, medicine, and veterinary science. Surveillance is an important part of a strong public health system, particularly for zoonoses. Ebola had been circulating for months in Guinea before hospital staff learned of it and notified health officials. About 75% of new emerging diseases are linked to the animals that share our daily spheres.

Scientists are looking for ways to catch these zoonoses sooner—efforts that involve experts in veterinary and human medicine. One of those approaches is PREDICT, a global project that aims to identify pathogens before they spill over from animal to human populations. Around the globe, teams are taking blood and fecal samples from bats, rodents, primates, and other animals in the search of new viruses—and they’re finding them. The next step, of course, is to figure out which might be dangerous to humans, and to set up a system that spots them before the outbreak becomes an international global health emergency.

Near the end of the conference I attended last year, I overhead one East Africa-based researcher say to another: “There will be another Marburg or Ebola in our lifetime.” The hope is that we’ll have the upper hand by then.

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