Tuesday 13 January 2015

Case->outbreak->epidemic->publication->learn a lesson...repeat

The global cumulative curve of suspect+probable+confirmed
cases EVD cases (orange) , suspect+probable+confirmed
EVD deaths (red) and the confirmed cases (yellow dots)
Updated from last WHO data posted 10JAN2015 AEST.
Click on image to enlarge.
When looking at the PubMed database search results for 'ebola', one can have no doubt that something big must have happened lately to drive such a massive number of science doers and writers to their keyboards. 

And of course something did - the world's largest, most widespread, multinational and longest running epidemic of Ebola virus disease (EVD) which roared through Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. At the end of 2014 there were 20,000 cases and 8,000 fatalities - and those were just the cases we have seen added to official lists and made public.

A tally downloaded from the PubMed search engine
based on numbers returned using the search term 'ebola'.
Click on graph to enlarge.
The adjacent image shows what the US National Library of Medicine's search engine generates when one searches for 'ebola'. The search engine, called PubMed because it makes the MEDLINE database public (MEDLINE being the Medical Literature Analysis and Retrieval System Online, or MEDLARS Online), lists many of the world's life science and biomedical publications that meet the PubMed standards; currently >24,000,000 citations. In 2014, a lot was written about EVD.

While a lot of the 'ebola' publications in 2014 were commentaries and a lot of reviews that mostly presented the same information, these were necessary to feed many different groups of readers and specialities hungering for background on EVD and the ebolaviruses and how these related to them and their roles, patients and lives. 

I had cause to scan the literature on a daily basis for a few weeks and was particularly impressed with the New England Journal of Medicine's clinical papers and the BMJ's summaries and updates. Of course Science/Sciencexpress and Nature had some beautifully informative articles as well - delving into the humanity behind the numbers and seeking answers to questions we were all asking. I thought PLOS Current Outbreaks (although I'll never enjoy reading that layout), Lancet, Lancet Infectious Diseases and Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report also stood out in 2014. 

Some of these articles came out very quickly and many were available without the need to breach a paywall. But some of the research...I can't help but wonder how many lives could have been saved if studies detailing and reinforcing the apparent benefits to survival from the aggressive use of intravenous fluids and electrolytes could have come out sooner-through whatever venue. What if we'd talked about, researched or actually published better personal protective gear designs earlier? Imagine if the world had registered that Ebola virus seemed to be in the region years ago, when research papers suggested it. Would any of this knowledge have saved more lives? Who knows? Would the focus on what needed to be delivered to West Africa have changed because of earlier dissemination of need? Would more point of care chemistry instruments have been prioritised? Would the urgency about the need for more healthcare workers have been stepped up if more specific examples of why they were needed were out there for our leaders to be briefed on? Probably unanswerable questions.

Why can't humans ever seem to learn enough to prevent the event sneaking up and whacking us senseless? Why is it always after the event that the light dawns and processes are created for 'next time'?

There will be many more publications to come in 2015, spinning out of this epidemic and the events yet to unravel. Hopefully they will create enough memory for the world to be better prepared for next time. Prepared for a little...uooh - goober fish...

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