Global impact of the Ebola outbreak

July 28, 2014 by Angela Herring, Northeastern University

The Ebola virus has been spreading in West Africa since March, but the current outbreak over the past few weeks has reached new heights and elevated the crisis. More than 650 people have died, and in recent days it was learned that Sierra Leone's leading Ebola doctor in charge of battling the outbreak has himself contracted the virus.

Here, network scientist Alessandro Vespignani, the Sternberg Family Distinguished Professor of Physics at Northeastern who has developed computational models to predict the spread of infectious diseases, discusses the Ebola outbreak. Vespignani holds joint appointments in the College of Science, the Bouvé College of Health Sciences, and the College of Computer and Information Science.

What sparked the recent surge of the Ebola outbreak, and could it have been predicted?

Ebola's outbreaks among human populations usually result from handling infected wild animals. Although the virus reservoir has not yet been identified with certainty, in Africa fruit bats are believed to be the natural hosts for the virus. It is therefore impossible to predict the start of an outbreak, although it is possible to project its unfolding if containment and mitigation policies are not implemented in a timely manner. Human-to-human transmission mostly occurs through blood or bodily fluids from an infected person, thus affecting mostly caregivers in the family or in healthcare settings where the proper cautions aren't taken. Isolation of cases in well-equipped healthcare settings and the use of rigid protection protocols for handling burial procedures are crucial for the containment of outbreaks.

How is this outbreak different from those that have occurred in the past?

Since March, the World Health Organization has reported more than 1,000 cases of Ebola with a fatality rate of about 60 percent, depending on the specific places. Although previous outbreaks recorded fatality rates of up to 90 percent, this current outbreak is the worst in terms of the number of infected people. This outbreak is somewhat unique also because it has hit major urban areas such as Conakry, the capital city of Guinea. In the past, Ebola has usually emerged in less populated rural regions. Isolation and control in large cities is obviously more challenging. Capital cities are also major transportation hubs for travelers potentially spreading the outbreak in other geographical regions.

Does this outbreak present an international concern and if so, how great is that concern?

The risk of infection for travelers is minimal because infection results from direct contact with sick individuals. However the presence of the disease in major cities with airports introduces the possibility that infected people not yet in the acute stage of the disease are going to get on a plane and spread the virus internationally. This global spreading can be modeled by using human mobility network data. Although we cannot rule out the possibility of cases spreading to major European or American airport hubs, the probability for these events is quite small because the major airports in the region have limited traffic to international destinations. On the other hand, the persistence in time of the outbreak and the growing number of cases are increasing the probability that we might see it spread internationally. The makes it imperative to win the battle in containing the in the region as soon as possible.

Explore further: Guinea Ebola outbreak under control: foreign minister (Update)

Related Stories

Guinea Ebola outbreak under control: foreign minister (Update)

April 14, 2014
Guinea's Foreign Minister Francois Fall said on Monday the west African country had brought the spread of the deadly Ebola virus under control after more than 100 people have died.

Sierra Leone defends its record on Ebola outbreak

June 21, 2014
Sierra Leone says it is dismayed by allegations that it is not doing enough to combat the Ebola outbreak ravaging West Africa.

Death toll in W.African Ebola outbreak rises to 518, WHO reports

July 8, 2014
The number of people believed to have died from Ebola in west Africa has jumped to 518, the World Health Organization said Tuesday.

Ebola toll rises to 74 in Guinea

April 29, 2014
Guinea said Tuesday 74 people had died so far this year in one of the worst ever outbreaks of the Ebola virus.

WHO reduces Ebola death toll in Sierra Leone

June 25, 2014
The World Health Organization on Wednesday announced it was changing the way it reports fatalities from the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone at the request of the government.

Ebola cases rise in Africa as doctors sound alarm

June 23, 2014
The international medical organization Doctors Without Borders sounded the alarm Monday over the outbreak of the Ebola disease in West Africa as some 20 new deaths have been reported.

Recommended for you

New approach could help curtail hospitalizations due to influenza infection

January 18, 2018
More than 700,000 Americans were hospitalized due to illnesses associated with the seasonal flu during the 2014-15 flu season, according to federal estimates. A radical new approach to vaccine development at UCLA may help ...

Flu may be spread just by breathing, new study shows; coughing and sneezing not required

January 18, 2018
It is easier to spread the influenza virus (flu) than previously thought, according to a new University of Maryland-led study released today. People commonly believe that they can catch the flu by exposure to droplets from ...

Certain flu virus mutations may compensate for fitness costs of other mutations

January 18, 2018
Seasonal flu viruses continually undergo mutations that help them evade the human immune system, but some of these mutations can reduce a virus's potency. According to new research published in PLOS Pathogens, certain mutations ...

Zika virus damages placenta, which may explain malformed babies

January 18, 2018
Though the Zika virus is widely known for a recent outbreak that caused children to be born with microencephaly, or having a small head, and other malformations, scientists have struggled to explain how the virus affects ...

Fresh approach to tuberculosis vaccine offers better protection

January 17, 2018
A unique platform that resulted in a promising HIV vaccine has also led to a new, highly effective vaccine against tuberculosis that is moving toward testing in humans.

Study reveals how MRSA infection compromises lymphatic function

January 17, 2018
Infections of the skin or other soft tissues with the hard-to-treat MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) bacteria appear to permanently compromise the lymphatic system, which is crucial to immune system function. ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.