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Johns Hopkins Ebola Symposium Reveals Faults In Response

Gwendolyn Glenn

The news was good, bad and a bit scary Tuesday at a symposium on the deadly Ebola virus at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health.

The good news is that a new vaccine to combat Ebola is set to be tested in the hard hit West African country of Liberia in December. Several other vaccines are being developed around the globe to stop the spread of the virus that spread rapidly in Sierra Leone and Guinea.

The bad news is that infectious disease experts said they’re still a long way from controlling the virus. And the scary news is that the experts said Ebola will never completely disappear, but re-emerge in cycles at different levels of severity in the future even if vaccines prove successful.

The idea that everyone is at risk echoed throughout the conference.

This week, the Centers for Disease Control predicted that at the current rate of infection, there could be as many as 10,000 Ebola cases a week in West Africa by December. So far, more than 8,000 cases have been reported with more than 4,000 deaths. The CDC estimated that for every reported case, two and a half go unreported.

The survival rate for those infected with the virus was running at just over 50 percent. It is now estimated at about 70 percent. The Ebola patients who are cured are immune for life, said Johns Hopkins professor Joshua Michaud. “So, let’s train and use them in fighting the disease.”

But Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota, complained that there is no comprehensive global strategy in place to fight the disease. And he argued that one must be developed, as well as several back up plans, because there are so many unknowns associated with the disease that need to be researched. “We got people making pronouncements about what this virus is doing and they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about,” Osterholm said. “We focus too heavily on fever and some people may not have a fever.”

In addition, Osterholm wants research done on the potential for airborne transmissions of the virus. “We can’t say if airborne transmissions can or can’t happen, and it begs the question. We should try to understand that and look into it,” Osterholm said. “I’ve been talking to a number of Ebola virologists who are very concerned about that which makes me concerned about it.”

Johns Hopkins officials say only 50 percent of the nearly $1 billion needed to combat the virus is currently in hand. Also, in some West African hospitals, only 20 percent of health care workers have protective gear to wear when treating patients.