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UN Ebola chief: disease could mutate and become airborne

OCTOBER 3, 2014

Duncan..First Ebola case in America
Duncan..First Ebola case in America

The longer the Ebola outbreak continues the higher the chances it will mutate and become airborne, the United Nations’ Ebola response chief warned yesterday.

Anthony Banbury, the Secretary General’s Special Representative, has said there is a prospect the deadly disease will become airborne if it continues infecting new hosts.

Banbury told the Telegraph that aid workers were fighting a race against time amid fears the disease will begin to mutate.

He said: “The longer it moves around in human hosts in the virulent melting pot that is West Africa, the more chances increase that it could mutate.

“It is a nightmare scenario, and unlikely, but it can’t be ruled out.”

He also admitted the international community had been late to respond to what was the worst disaster he had ever witnessed.

He said: “In a career working in these kinds of situations, wars, natural disasters – I have never seen anything as serious or dangerous or high risk as this one.”

Last month in a piece for the New York Times, Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said experts are loath to discuss their concerns in public, for fear of whipping up hysteria.

Discussing the possible future course of the current outbreak, he warned: “The second possibility is one that virologists are loath to discuss openly but are definitely considering in private: that an Ebola virus could mutate to become transmissible through the air.”

Dr Osterholm warned viruses similar to Ebola are notorious for replicating and reinventing. The virus can currently only be transmitted through close contact with bodily fluids, including blood, of an infected patient.

It means the virus that first broke out in Guinea in February may be very different to the one now terrorizing West Africa.

Pointing to the example of the H1N1 influenza virus that saw bird flu sweep the globe in 2009, Dr Osterholm said: ‘If certain mutations occurred, it would mean that just breathing would put one at risk of contracting Ebola.’

In 2012, Canadian researchers found the virus could be passed via the respiratory system between pigs and monkeys – both of which have similar lungs to humans.

It was the same virus as that which is responsible for the current death toll in West Africa.
However, other experts said it was unlikely that the disease could become airborne.

“The chances of Ebola becoming airborne are extremely small,” said Dr Jeremy Farrar, a director at Wellcome Trust.

“I am not aware of any viral infection changing its mode of transmission. This is not to say it would be impossible, but it’s important we retain a sense of proportion and not exaggerate the risks for it changing and becoming airborne. There is already enough fear and panic surrounding this epidemic.

“Of more concern is that the virus could become endemic in Western Africa, so unlike big outbreaks like this, we could have smaller numbers of cases but circulating continuously.

This is where we need to focus our efforts and attention – on trying to stop this outbreak before it establishes itself in Western African countries.”

A Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Prof David Heymann, said: “No one can predict what will happen with the mutation of the virus, and there is no evidence to suggest that it will become a respiratory virus. Its epidemiology is consistent with transmission via blood, bodily secretions and excretions, which is exactly the same as other past epidemics.

“Other viruses that transmit in a similar manner by blood, such as Hepatitis B and HIV, have not mutated in this manner. In order for Ebola to change, the virus would have to develop the capacity to attach to receptors in the respiratory system.”

Banbury’s comments come as organisations battling the crisis in West Africa warned the international community has just four weeks to stop its spread before it spirals ‘completely out of control’.

The number of new Ebola infections is growing exponentially. Officials believe the number of new cases is doubling every few weeks. More than 3,300 people in West Africa have died.

Save the Children have also warned five more people are infected with the virus every hour.

The British nurse, who survived the disease, said the ‘horror and misery’ of watching young children die from the disease must be avoided ‘at all costs’.

Addressing the Defeating Ebola conference in London yesterday, British nurse Will Pooley, 29, pleaded with the world’s governments to do all they could to stop children dying from the disease.

Visibly upset and at times overwhelmed by his emotions, Pooley retold the case of a brother and sister, aged four and two, who he cared for in Sierra Leone.

He described the ‘squalid’ conditions they were treated in, telling how the young boy died with a pained grimace on his face lying naked in a pool of his own diarrhoea.

The little girl, described by Mr Pooley as ‘beautiful’, died a day after her brother, a puzzled look on her tiny face as she lay covered in her own blood.

Mr Pooley, said: “My specific fear is the horror and the misery of these deaths.
“And I just don’t know what happens if that is repeated one million times and so I say, at all costs we can’t let that happen.”

Pooley, from Suffolk, has just returned from a life-saving mission to the U.S. where he gave blood to try and help a victim of the virus, a friend he worked with in Sierra Leone helping victims.

He became the first Briton to contract the virus after working as a volunteer nurse in Sierra Leone, which is one of the worst-hit countries of the current outbreak.

He was flown back to Britain on August 24 and recovered after being treated at an isolation unit at London’s Royal Free Hospital.

This week the first case of Ebola on U.S. soil was diagnosed after Thomas Eric Duncan flew into Dallas, Texas from Liberia, touching down in Brussels and Washington en route.

He is now being treated at the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital and is said to be in a serious but stable condition.

Details of his treatment have not been revealed but Mr Duncan is reportedly not being treated with the experimental serum ZMapp used to treat aid workers with the disease, including Mr Pooley – because stocks have run out.

As many as 100 people in Texas are feared to have come into contact with 42-year-old Duncan and are being contacted by health officials.

Authorities earlier put the figure at 18, including five children – prompting parents to remove their sons and daughters from schools in Dallas.

School administrators urged calm as none of the children have shown symptoms and are being monitored at home, where they will likely remain for three weeks.

The Texas Department of State Health Services, in a statement yesterday, said four members of Duncan’s family have been legally ordered to stay home as a precaution even though they are not showing symptoms. Violating the order could result in criminal charges.

However, his quarantined girlfriend Louise, said she has not been told what to do with Duncan’s sweat-soaked bedclothes which remain in her home.

She told CNN that she has been legally ordered to stay inside her Dallas apartment with her 13-year-old child and two nephews, who are both in their twenties, as they came in direct contact with the patient while he was contagious.

None of the four people quarantined are showing Ebola symptoms but Louise, who works as a home help, has been taking the group’s temperature every hour.

The CDC has not told the mother what to do with Duncan’s sweat-soaked sheets and pillows which remain in the home. She has placed the towels he used in plastic bags and cleaned up with bleach.

The U.S. Department of Health has confirmed that a patient in Honolulu, Hawaii, has been placed in isolation with suspected Ebola.

The unnamed patient, who is being treated at the Queen’s Medical Centre, has not yet been tested for the disease, but is displaying some symptoms.

Experts from the WHO and Imperial College, London, predict numbers will continue to climb and more than 20,000 people will have been infected by early next month.

So far, around 6,500 cases have been officially recorded, though the number of victims is thought to be under reported.

However, fears the disease may become airborne are not new.

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