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Emerging Risks Blog


Patrick Kelliher

Apologies if this post is a bit belated as I am sure most risk functions will now have Ebola on their radar in light of the recent outbreak in West Africa. As ever the WHO's Global Oubreak Alert and Response Network is providing updates on the situation:

Some key facts about Ebola:

  • It has a high case fatality rate - up to 90% compared to 60% for the H5N1 strain of bird flu;
  • It can be highly infectious between people (unlike H5N1 currently); and
  • It has an average incubation period of nearly 2 weeks (vs.2-17 days for 5N1) between infection and symptoms emerging, creating uncertainty as to how far the disease as spread.

What is worrying about the current outbreak is that previous outbreaks have generally occurred in remoter parts of DR Congo and Uganda, this outbreak has reached Conakry, the capital of Guinea, with a population of 2m people and airport links to the wider world. However for now the WHO is not recommending travel or trade restrictions on the countries affected - Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Mali - and it is hoped that the outbreak will be contained.

Still it offers an uncomfortable reminder of the threat posed by pandemics. For those wishing to know more, I would recommend "The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age" (Nathan Wolfe, 2011) which gives a very good discussion of pandemics and biorisk including why central Africa is a reservoir for dangerous pathogens like Ebola.

Post-script (5/8/2014) - I may have over-exaggerated the infetiousness of Ebola. While more infectious than H5N1 where person to person transmission is mercifully rare, it is not airborne and can be transmitted only by contact with bodily fluids and surfaces contaminated by the same. It should be possible to address transmission with basic hygiene such as washing hands and so an outbreak in the UK should be containable (though given the continued transmission of MRSA etc., perhaps we should not over-estimate the effect of basic hygiene!).



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