The perfect storm of Ebola

One year later, and a local outbreak of Ebola in West Africa has spun into an international crisis
“This fast pace of Ebola’s spread is a grim reminder that epidemics are a global threat", Professor Peter Piot
Ebola has now claimed almost 5,000 lives and the number of cases has reached just under 14,000

If you hadn’t heard of Ebola before the year 2014, it’s a pretty safe bet that you have by now. Beginning as a local issue, the virus struck Guinea in December 2013. It has since transformed into an international crisis in what is the most severe outbreak since the discovery of Ebola in 1976. Almost 9,000 lives have been claimed and the number of confirmed cases has reached just under 14,000.

Initially spreading to a further four countries in West Africa, the first diagnosis outside of Africa was made on 30 September when a man who contracted the virus in Liberia flew to Texas, USA. Unfortunately, he became one of the 9,000 whose lives were taken just over a week later. In the first known contraction outside of Africa, a nurse in Spain was infected with the virus after treating a Spanish priest who caught Ebola in Sierra Leone.

The first Ebola case detected within the UK occurred in late December 2014. After volunteering at a treatment centre in Sierra Leone, a healthcare worker was diagnosed with Ebola in Glasgow's Gartnavel Hospital. The patient was later transferred to an isolation unit in the Royal Free Hospital in London. The nurse has since made a full recovery and was discharged in late January 2015.

Despite the successful treatment stories, the epidemic continues to claim lives and the number of new cases is still increasing. Healthcare demands continue to outweigh supply. With health facilities being left abandoned or becoming saturated with victims of the Ebola virus, those with other diseases or injuries normally treated in hospitals have also been affected by the epidemic.

Professor Peter Piot, who co-discovered the virus and is now Director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, claims that “a perfect storm” of various disadvantageous factors have added to the severity of this outbreak. In addition to a far too delayed response from the international community, a combination of traditional funeral practices in which relatives touch infected bodies, dysfunctional health systems and lack of trust in local authorities have all contributed to the spread of Ebola.

“This fast pace of Ebola’s spread is a grim reminder that epidemics are a global threat and that the only way to gain the virus under control is through a rapid response at a global scale – much stronger than the current efforts”, Professor Piot writes in Science.

"We are a long way off catching up with the current outbreak, and even further from being in control of it."

Despite the recent reminder that Ebola carries a threat to those of us much further afield than West Africa, Professor Piot does not believe that calls to stop flights from the most affected areas is the answer. “Cancelling flights is not helpful. WHO recommends against it. To close the borders and so on, it doesn’t work in practice. But also, it makes international support far more difficult and expensive.”

Almost a year since this outbreak first struck Guinea, international aid is beginning to pick up. The US and some other countries are finally beginning to offer support but Professor Piot warns that “we are a long way off catching up with the current outbreak, and even further from being in control of it”. Aid from further countries is required immediately to help overcome this, now global, disaster.

The EU Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) has recently announced that the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine will be coordinating trials of an Ebola vaccine. Phase I trials have already begun in Europe. Subject to a review of Phase I, Phase II and III trials will be carried out in both Europe and Africa.

As yet, the only way of controlling the Ebola virus is isolation and quarantine. Professor Peter Piot notes, "It is vital that we work together to accelerate the development of an effective vaccine, both for the current epidemic and future outbreaks.”

If you would like to learn more about infectious diseases such as Ebola and gain a postgraduate qualification at the same time, the University of London International Programmes offers a distance learning MSc Infectious Diseases postgraduate degree, allowing you to fit your studies around your work.

Further information on the latest outbreak of Ebola and links to studies and articles consulted for this article can be found below. You can also listen to Professor Peter Piot explain how he co-discovered the Ebola virus in 1976, his views on the current Ebola epidemic, and what can be done.