Written by Sarah Kellett
The largest outbreak of Ebola ever recorded is happening in West Africa. Since February this year, more than 1000 people have been killed by the Ebola virus. Last week, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern.
Understanding the spread
Ebola virus is zoonotic, meaning it has the ability to spread from animals to people. Bats are thought to be the natural host, but the virus also infects chimpanzees, gorillas and humans. It can spread between people if someone has close contact with a sick person’s blood or bodily fluids. It is not spread by coughing and sneezing like the flu.
Australia, Europe and the USA are pretty safe, as we have a lot of equipment, doctors and hospitals and could stop Ebola spreading. However, it’s still a scary disease because the only treatments are experimental, meaning they haven’t been fully tested for safety, or to see if they work. In West Africa, poverty and other problems are making it much harder to control the disease.
Glenn Marsh from CSIRO is doing research to understand why the African Ebola virus strains are so deadly to people. “In Africa, there are four different species of Ebola virus, all cause fatal disease. There is also another Ebola virus found in South-East Asia called Reston ebolavirus, and even though it can infect people, it doesn’t cause any disease, not even mild flu-like symptoms,” he says. “We want to investigate the difference.”
Doing science safely
Glenn works at CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratory – one of the few places in the world where scientists can work safely with the virus.
To keep safe while studying the deadly virus, scientists wear a sealed outfit like a spacesuit. The garment is connected to a hose in the ceiling that supplies clean air. Working safely comes with challenges. You can’t eat, drink or go to the toilet in the laboratory, and the suit includes tear-resistant gloves, similar to thick dishwashing gloves.
“We’re used to working at this level of containment, we’ve been doing it for years,” says Glenn. The team previously worked on another deadly zoonotic disease – the Hendra virus. Also carried by bats, it infects horses and people. CSIRO successfully developed a horse vaccine against Hendra three years ago. Hopefully success comes swiftly to the scientists across the world working to understand, cure and prevent Ebola.
- Ebola virus fact sheet from the World Health Organization
- Luckily, this outbreak was contained – here’s a story from the end of the outbreak
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Many countries around the world are trying to help with the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Some people are looking for a cure, others are sending medical supplies. What other ways can we help, and what do you think is the best way?
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