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Health, Science & Tech

Pitt Hosts Lecture on Ebola Outbreak in West Africa

With nearly 2,000 confirmed deaths and more than 3,700 cases in West Africa in the last eight months, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Ebola virus spreads rapidly from one human host to another.

But Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician at UPMC specializing in emerging pathogens, said that is not the case.

“Right now Ebola is not a human pathogen,” said Adalja. “Humans are dead-end hosts. It can’t really spread very well between humans, other than through exposure to their blood or bodily fluids.”

In that way, Adalja said we can look to the evolution of HIV/AIDS to understand how Ebola might develop. HIV began as what is called a zoonotic infection, and so far, the Ebola virus still is one.

“If you can intervene early with … zoonotic infections, infections that are jumping from animals to humans, you have the potential to stop them before they acquire characteristics that may make them truly human pathogens,” Adalja sad.

These are a few of the ideas that Adalja covered in a talk Monday at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, the first in a new lecture series focusing on global health equity.

Adalja said this outbreak is unique from previous outbreaks, which were dealt with quickly and had death tolls numbering in the hundreds rather than the thousands. Adalja suspects that a widespread mistrust of the state governments in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone are partially to blame.

“That may be compounding this outbreak, because individuals may be hiding cases, they may not be presenting for treatment, they’re just not listening to the public health communication messages that are being enunciated,” Adalja said.

Adalja said old-fashioned communication is ultimately going to make more of a difference than the experimental drug ZMapp or an Ebola vaccine.

“What we really have to do is double down on the things that have worked in the past,” Adalja said. “That’s simple public health messaging, looking for cases, isolating contacts and cases, and changing the way people do burial procedures (in the affected countries) to avoid exposure to blood and bodily fluids.”