- UN Warns of Remote Possibility Ebola Could Become Airborne
- 3,330 dead and more than 7,100 infected during recent outbreak
- 5 new infections every hour
- One confirmed US case of Ebola in Texas, another suspected in Hawaii. Both air travelers from Africa.
- US dispatches 1,400 troops to Liberia to aid in massive effort to contain the virus
- Death rate for Ebola is 25-90 percent
- Climate change only indirectly related to current outbreak
(Current extent of Ebola outbreak in West Africa, according to CDC sources. Image source: Google/CDC)
As of this July of 2014, the number of recorded Ebola deaths worldwide since the mid 1970s was a little over 1,500 with less than 3,000 infections. That was before a massive outbreak centering on Sierra Leone in Africa killed more than 3,300 and infected more than 7,100.
Today, the estimated rate of infection is about 5 persons every hour. Persons infected with the virus have come as far as Texas in the United States prompting the immediate US quarantine of over 100 people thought to have been exposed. In total, this outbreak is likely to infect more than 20,000. And that’s if a massive international effort to stop the virus is effective.
It’s an effort that includes all the resources the UN has available to fight and contain diseases. An effort that has resulted in the mobilization of 1,400 US Military troops from Fort Campbell Kentucky bound for the West African hot zone.
Ebola — A Deadly Killer
Some years ago, I managed the editing of a Jane’s emergency response guide called The Chem-bio Handbook. The handbook was a compilation of information from leading experts about the world’s most deadly poisons and diseases. A quick reference guide for first responders unfortunate enough to have to deal with the most nightmarish toxins and infections dreamed up by nature or humankind.
Among these, Ebola was certainly one of the most feared and mysterious.
(Ebola progression of symptoms. Image source: CDC — Ebola.)
It was transferred by contact with bodily fluids — blood, sweat, saliva, semen, excrement. It waited latent in the body for between two and twenty one days before first flaring into flu-like symptoms. Headache, fever, sore throat, weakness, muscle pain. These indistinct symptoms could go along with a hundred other illnesses. But after some days, Ebola went hemorrhagic. At this point vomiting, diarrhea, rash, failing liver and kidneys, and internal and external bleeding displayed Ebola’s all too familiar and terrifying call signs.
In the end, the disease claimed between 25 and 90 percent of all those who fell ill with it. A death rate that is among the worst of the worst for any disease now active on the Earth.
Treatment for the illness is primarily limited to supportive care and isolating the patient to prevent the infection from spreading. But during recent years a serum derived from the blood of victims who have survived the illness has provided some hope for raising recovery rates. Investigation for an effective vaccine is ongoing.
One issue with the current strain of Ebola now impacting Seirra Leone and broader Africa is that it is a rapid mutator. The strain separated from the standard forms of Ebola seen in humans about ten years ago. Since that time, the virus has accumulated about 395 mutations. After leaping back to humans this summer, the virus had accumulated 5o new mutations in just one month.
The problem with rapid mutation is that it gives the virus a chance to become more virulent. In the worst case, some researchers and international officials fear that the virus could become airborne.
Today, Anthony Banbury, the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative, raised these dire concerns in public stating:
‘The longer [Ebola] moves around in human hosts in the virulent melting pot that is West Africa, the more chances increase that it could mutate. [Airborne contagion] is a nightmare scenario, and unlikely, but it can’t be ruled out.’
Most researchers consider the risk for such a transfer from fluid-borne to airborne infection for any illness, even a rapid mutator, to be very low. So it is rather odd that the UN’s special representative would voice these fears without special cause for concern.
Highest Risk Event Ever
This high level of concern may well be related to the terrors UN and international aid workers are witnessing on the ground.
Mr. Banbury, who has worked with the UN on the issue of dangerous and infectious diseases, wars, natural disasters and other extreme events since 1988 appeared both horrified and taken aback by the ferocity of the current outbreak:
“We have never seen anything like it. In a career working in these kinds of situations, wars, natural disasters – I have never seen anything as serious or dangerous or high risk as this one. I’ve heard other people saying this as well, senior figures who are not being alarmist. Behind closed doors, they are saying they have never seen anything as bad,” he said.
In order to contain the outbreak, the international community is scrambling to set up thousands of clinics and isolation centers throughout affected regions. The idea is to isolate more than 70 percent of the infected persons to prevent the virus from making yet another explosive advance. Ultimately, the goal is to get a reduction in cases after a strong three-month-long response:
“We intend to see a significant improvement in the 30 to 60-day window, so that by 90 days the curve is headed in the right direction. We are putting resources in place very fast, and we will continue to flow in. It is not all there at the moment,” Mr Banbury said. “That’s the theory and that’s the plan. If it spreads in an urban setting, then it’s a different story.”
“I would not say I am confident we will succeed [in the 90-day plan] given the absolutely merciless numbers of the spread and what needs to be done to get it under control. These are extremely, extremely ambitious targets, set by doctors. We are blowing down bureaucratic barriers to get things done…but I don’t know if it will be enough…I would not want to give the impression that we can wave a magic wand.”
Climate Change an Indirect Factor
Back in August, both Newsweek and MSNBC provided speculative stories raising the possibility that the current Ebola outbreak was directly related to climate change. But unlike vector driven illnesses such as Cholera and Malaria, it is very difficult to pin down a specific link between Ebola and the human-caused warming of the globe.
Related factors such increasing poverty and hunger driving humans to consume more bush meat and therefore expose themselves to higher risk of contracting an animal-borne infection such as Ebola are likely at play. And larger factors such as increasing human population density, global travel, and human concentration into urban centers all likely increase risks linked to Ebola. But the heat driven influences on Ebola are far less than expanding the range of Malaria bearing mosquitos or a proliferation of flooding events greatly magnifying the risk of Cholera outbreaks.
It is worth noting, however, that diseases, overall, tend to become more virulent with warming as pathogen killing cold spells are retreating further and further poleward.