Saturday 21 February 2015

Ebola virus disease: obliterating a variant and stalled case decline...

We've seen the words vigilant and vigilance used widely in recent weeks, ever since we entered a "new phase" of the Ebola virus disease (EVD) battle/fight/war.

The reason for vigilance in all things to do with this campaign has become obvious as the weeks have passed; the reduction in cases has stalled.

I've very crudely drawn in some trends below. Whether you agree with them or not, it is clear that since the fast fall in confirmed cases reported between November-January, it seems to have become very difficult to stamp out the last fires of EVD. 

The phases.
(Very) rough trends in the number of EVD cases over time.
Date from World Health Organization situation reports (SitReps)
and situation summaries (SitSumms).
Click on image to enlarge.
Liberia has come the closest to completing this goal of obliterating the Makona variant of the Zaire ebolavirus (EBOV|Makona) with just 3-9 confirmed cases between World Health Organization (WHO) Situation Report (SitReps) during any of the past 7 weeks. It seems that recent cases can be traced to known transmission chains too and that means no surprise outbreaks. 

However, the people of Guinea and Sierra Leone have not quite got the messages that those in Liberia seem to have embraced (without touching!) so admirably. 

In the last WHO SitRep [1] it was noted that 39-45 unsafe burials (probably not all that occurred) occurred in a week and >40 EVD cases were identified post-mortem. This last observation means exposure of the community to the virus, not getting help and treatment for ill people, and unnecessarily requiring contact tracers to play catch-up. Bad for the infected people their friends and families and the response to EVD. It doesn't have to be that way.

This paints a picture of problems with Ebola outreach and education, communication and cooperation. Those things will keep the latest EVD "phase" chugging along. 

We do need to destroy this variant of Ebola virus by isolating it in the last human cases in each of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Once those people recover or regrettably die, EBOV|Makona will be gone, except for what's in lab freezers around the world and in sequence databases thanks to the efforts of a few expert research teams. Once gone from "the wild", the evolutionary clock resets back to the EBOV variants in the animals of the forest.

EBOV|Makona knows too much; it has seen too much; it has learned too much, to be allowed to "live". It has been passed through humans too many times and while there is a vanishingly small chance it will sprout wings, it is still a virus that spreads relatively easily under the right conditions and circumstances. Explosive loss of 8 litres of fluids a day provides many ways to pass along this blood/gastro virus. EBOV|Makona may also have adapted, and continues to adapt, in other ways that would mean its stay among humans becomes lengthy and its dissemination more widespread.

More bad news from an unsuccessful obliteration of EBOV|Makona-smouldering EVD in Sierra Leone and Guinea may release new case embers that drift across borders and set new fires in other countries. We don't need hundreds of cases a day for that to happen.[3] We know cases also fly with the aid of planes (not wings). And the cycle could renew. I don't think we'll see such big outbreaks of EBOV|Makona again, for reasons I laid out here, but chasing new fires is more work than stamping out the remnants of old ones. Vigilance and action. 

I think vaccines still have an important role to play in the final phase of this epidemic, even if only 3 new healthcare worker cases were noted in the past SitRep week. Vaccine given to more than just healthcare workers could be useful here if others will accept the needle.

  • Ebola outreach
  • Education
  • Communication
  • Cooperation

Oh, and vigilance.



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