Why was the last Ebola epidemic so much worse than previous?

❝ In late 2013, the Ebola virus began spreading through a small village in the West African nation of Guinea following human contact with an animal, likely a fruit bat. This was the start of what turned out to be the most widespread of all recorded Ebola outbreaks, resulting in 28,646 confirmed and suspected cases of illness, and 11,323 recorded deaths.

The unprecedented outbreak left a devastating toll on the social and economic infrastructure in West Africa, but it also forever changed the perspective from which virologists and epidemiologists study and track infectious diseases.

❝ Kristian Andersen…set out to determine why the recent epidemic was different from previous Ebola outbreaks. Specifically, his team wanted to figure out exactly how the virus spread so rapidly—and why it had such devastating effects on the people infected.

❝ Ebola is in a category of viruses that are especially prone to mutations because they lack the ability to correct mistakes during replication. This means that a virus such as Ebola can rapidly change as it spreads, for example, by evolving into a more deadly virus. That is the scenario that appears to have played out during the epidemic in West Africa.

But how? As described in a paper in the recent issue of Cell, a peer-reviewed scientific journal focused on the life sciences, Andersen and his group found what could be the smoking gun: a mutation—dubbed the GP-A82V mutant—on a particular type of protein, the viral receptor glycoprotein, in samples of the virus from the epidemic. This mutation increased the ability of the virus to infect human dendritic cells, the type of immune cells that the Ebola virus uses to make copies of itself.

A few more links in the article are useful for further perusal. I think we’re all fortunate that Andersen’s study landed on target in a reasonable stretch of time. No one knows when and exactly where the next outbreak of Ebola will strike. Perhaps by then his research will have better equipped other medical professionals to fight back and save more lives.

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