Although made for entertainment, films like “Outbreak,” a 1995 thriller about a virus with a 100 percent mortality rate, shed light on a world of pathogens and their nonhuman primate hosts, Ward said.
Ward, the director of scholar development and undergraduate research at Oklahoma State University, answered a few questions about the evolving Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
Ward’s published research extends from non-human primate genetics to human disease. He is a former research fellow at Harvard Medical School’s New England primate research center and former member of the primate immunogenetics and molecular ecology research group at the University of Cambridge.
Q: How much do scientists understand about Ebola?
A: Since first discovered in Africa in 1976, scientists have uncovered much about the virus, but the development of a specific treatment or vaccine remains elusive. Pinpointing the definitive reservoir of the virus, or natural host, has also been difficult.
Q: How does a person become infected by Ebola? Can it be spread person to person?
A: Ebola is first transmitted to humans through contact with bodily fluids of infected animals such as nonhuman primates and fruit bats. Ebola then spreads amongst humans through contact with the bodily fluids of infected people, causing vomiting, diarrhea, impaired kidney and liver function, and finally internal and external bleeding. It kills up to 50 percent to 90 percent of those infected.
Q: Why has there been an increase in Ebola outbreaks?
A: The ongoing outbreak is the first to hit West Africa and the worst on record with nearly 600 deaths since February. The uncontrolled spread of the disease has been fueled by close contact with deceased during traditional burial ceremonies, regional distrust in government healthcare officials, and active trade across Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. There is also a strong reluctance of the infected to come forward. This reluctance makes containment and isolation of the virus extremely difficult, exacerbated in countries with very limited infrastructure and difficult terrain.
Q: Has Ebola ever been detected in the U.S.? What’s the risk of that?
A: A member of the Ebola virus family, Reston ebolavirus, was detected in the U.S. in the early 1990s through importation of infected monkeys from the Philippines. However, no humans developed symptoms of the disease. It is unlikely that the current Ebola outbreak will spread to the U.S., given that the affected countries are not major hubs for air travel and that transmission, normally requiring extended physical contact, is not as easy as catching the flu, for instance.
Q: How could individuals or groups in Oklahoma help communities affected by the recent Ebola outbreak?
A: Doctors Without Borders has been one of the lead organizations fighting the disease in West Africa from the start. There are many ways to support their mission, and I encourage those interested in this ongoing crisis to do so.