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Back in the headlines: Here's why Ebola is making news once again

August 5, 2015

    Clare Rizer, Daily Briefing

    One year ago today, the Daily Briefing published its first analysis of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa—the deadliest outbreak of the virus since it was first detected in 1976.

    Since then, 27,784 total cases have been reported across the globe, and nearly 11,300 people have died.  

    When the disease hit the United States in September of last year—the first cases of Ebola diagnosed outside West Africa—fear and frenzy erupted throughout the country. But since the United States was declared Ebola-free last fall, Americans have ignored most news about the virus.

    But there was a piece of news last week that shouldn't be overlooked: Researchers say they've developed a new vaccine to fight Ebola. And the way they did it could fundamentally change the way vaccines are developed for other kinds of epidemics.

    'Highly effective' vaccine could change the course of the outbreak for good

    Writing in The Lancet, the researchers shared interim results showing the rVSV-ZEBOV vaccine is "highly effective" at protecting individuals from the Ebola virus currently spreading in Guinea.

    But that's not all. The vaccine also has been shown to be effective against Ebola cases in individuals who haven't yet been vaccinated.

    For the study, researchers employed a strategy known as "ring vaccination," which involves vaccinating every person an infected individual has come into contact with to create protective barriers and stop the virus from further spreading. They vaccinated about 3,500 people, therefore creating 90 separate rings, and found that none of the participants who received the vaccine contracted the Ebola virus. Researchers contend the results mean a small amount of herd immunity was achieved.

    How the world's 26th Ebola outbreak can prepare us for the 27th

    In fact, the team conducting the trial deemed the vaccine so effective that a delayed vaccination of a second control group was unneeded. Instead, a safety monitoring board called for the study to be published immediately and adjusted to ensure all eligible volunteers were immediately vaccinated.

    World Health Organization (WHO) Director Margaret Chan called the vaccine a "game-changer" that "will change the management of the current Ebola outbreak and future outbreaks."

    Some experts say the vaccine's fast-track approach could reshape how vaccines are developed for other types of epidemics. Adrian Hill, director of the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford who is involved in testing a different Ebola vaccine, suggests research on vaccines for other potential epidemics—such as MERS and chikungunya—be fast-tracked to clinical trials. If found effective, researchers could then stockpile the vaccines in the event of a future outbreak.

    global look at disease outbreaks

    But some naysayers say that Doctors Without Borders and other groups calling for the immediate distribution of the drug are doing more harm than good. Writing in WIRED, Katie Palmer says concluding the trial early is a "perfectly reasonable, humane reaction, but it also means that the researchers will never be able to collect better data on the vaccine's efficacy," which could make it hard-pressed to win regulatory approval down the line.

    Still, Palmer notes, "There's simply nothing else available."

    Is the outbreak waning?

    Meanwhile, the current outbreak continues to rage in Guinea and Sierra Leone. And while WHO in May declared Liberia Ebola-free, two new cases surfaced last month.

    At the end of July, there were still between 20 to 30 new cases being diagnosed per week in the three most affected countries. Tulip Mazumdar writes for BBC that before the current outbreak, such numbers "would have constituted a major epidemic, but we live in very changed times."

    But things may be looking up. The latest WHO data show just seven newly reported cases, the lowest weekly total for more than a year, and last Friday the United Nations ended its special mission for Ebola response.

    However, WHO officials caution that several "high-risk" situations have occurred in Sierra Leone and Guinea over the past two weeks. Just last week, authorities in Sierra Leone quarantined nearly 500 people after a man died of the virus in an area where Ebola had been eradicated for months. It was later discovered that two of the man's family members had contracted the virus.

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