West Africa is currently being assailed by the worst outbreak of Ebola virus ever recorded. As of 17th July, World Health Organisation (WHO) reports indicated that out of more than 1048 confirmed and suspected cases of Ebola in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, 632 people had fallen victim to the deadly disease, and its rapid spread across the continent is creating serious concerns that the worst is yet to come.
The WHO report stated that the epidemic trend was “serious, with high numbers of new cases and deaths being reported” and health authorities are struggling to control the epidemic, though currently no travel or trade restrictions have been imposed on the affected areas.
The Ebola virus, also known as Ebola haemorrhagic fever, is a highly contagious disease with an extremely high fatality rate of up to 90%. It is transmitted to people from wild animals such as fruit bats, but in humans it is spread via contact with blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected people through broken skin or mucous membranes, or indirect contact with environments contaminated with such fluids. Even contact with deceased victims at burial ceremonies has been shown to transmit Ebola.
There is currently no known cure or vaccine and the disease remains a very serious threat to life.
Elsewhere in the world, other deadly diseases are also taking lives: in China, 30,000 residents in the city of Yumen have been placed on lockdown in order to try and prevent the spread of bubonic plague. The bacterial blast from the past has already killed one man and 151 people have been put into quarantine.
Bubonic plague, a bacterial disease spread by fleas on wild rodents, is notorious for decimating populations in the 14th century, when millions of people fell victim to its unpleasant symptoms which include painful lymph node swellings known as "bubos". Though modern day medicine is able to effectively treat bubonic plague with antibiotics, it is still deadly if it is not treated swiftly as it can rapidly turn into pneumonic or septicemic plague which can kill within 24 hours.
The warmer climates experienced through climate change are increasing the risk of other deadly diseases, including the resurgence of eastern equine encephalitis virus (EEE) in Massachusetts this year.
This lethal virus is spread by mosquitoes and sometimes birds, who can sometimes transport it for hundreds of miles, and it was initially found in horses in 1831. Deadly to its equine victims and also capable of infecting amphibians, birds, mammals and reptiles, it made the leap to humans in 1938, when it first affected and killed 30 young American children. Though it can only be contracted via mosquitoes and not mammal-to-mammal contact, the mild summer weather in the United States has resulted in a mosquito population explosion, increasing the risk of transmission significantly.
EEE causes inflammation of the brain which leads to death in around 35% of cases, and there is no known cure for the disease. The latest outbreak was identified on July 15 in Bridgewater, Plymouth County, by the Massachusetts Department of Health. Cases are expected to increase as the summer progresses, and Americans are advised to take extra precautions by covering up outdoors and avoiding favourite haunts of mosquitoes, such as wet, swampy areas.
As though the world is not already besieged by naturally-occurring plagues and pestilence, scientists continue to push bacterial and viral boundaries by creating new and even more potent diseases in the name of research. Scientists have recently developed a fatal virus similar to the strain of Spanish flu that killed around 50 million people in 1918.
The Spanish flu was thought to have originated in birds and the US researchers who produced the virus maintain that it forms part of a crucial experiment that is required to better understand the public health risk posed by those bird-borne viruses which are currently circulating in the wild. The experiment has been labelled as "crazy" and highly dangerous by critics who have lobbied sponsors to halt the study.
"The work they are doing is absolutely crazy. The whole thing is exceedingly dangerous," said Lord May, the former president of the Royal Society and one time chief science adviser to the UK government. "Yes, there is a danger, but it's not arising from the viruses out there in the animals, it's arising from the labs of grossly ambitious people."
Most "bird flus" remain contained within feathered species, but occasionally mutations occur that facilitate human infections. The newly engineered virus was mutated from fragments of wild bird flu strains using a process known as reverse genetics; the resulting strain can now be airborne in water droplets, enabling much easier transmission from one host to another.
This type of research has divided the scientific community, with one side arguing that the risk is necessary to learn more about the way viruses mutate, and the opposing side hotly disputing this view on the grounds that the creation of new and even more deadly viruses ultimately poses a much higher risk to the global population than is posed by viruses already in existence.
Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health, said: "I am worried that this signals a growing trend to make transmissible novel viruses willy-nilly, without strong public health rationale. This is a risky activity, even in the safest labs. Scientists should not take such risks without strong evidence that the work could save lives, which this paper does not provide," he added.
Lipsitch suggested that such experiments could unleash a catastrophic pandemic if a virus escaped or was intentionally released from a high-security laboratory, but lead author Yoshihiro Kawaoka defended his work, saying that critics failed to appreciate how necessary it was to understand the nature of mutation. The experiments showed that a 1918-like flu virus could emerge again in the wild as bird viruses swap genes and mutate.
"Influenza viruses readily swap genes to generate new viruses, so something like this could happen, especially since many of these viruses have circulated in recent years," Kawaoka said. The viruses "have the potential to become adapted to mammals and possibly cause a human pandemic," he added.
Lipsitch remained unconvinced: "The chance that a virus very similar to the one they study will appear in nature is extremely remote," he said, though Kawaoka argues that his team is fully aware of this, but suggested that the underlying mechanisms are similar in all cases and it is important to understand how they work.
Simon Wain-Hobson, a virologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said he feared that governments and funding bodies would only take the risks seriously once an accident had happened. "It's madness, folly. It shows profound lack of respect for the collective decision-making process we've always shown in fighting infections. If society, the intelligent layperson, understood what was going on, they would say 'What the F are you doing?'"
Should scientists be creating more deadly versions of existing viruses in the interests of research? Even with the highest level of biosafety conditions and risk mitigation, mistakes can still happen and there would be no second chance. Unknown Country recently reported that vials of the deadly SARS virus went missing from a French laboratory and have never been found.
Add your voice to the debate by subscribing to our unique and wonderful website, where some of the most important issues affecting ourselves, our planet and the universe are introduced daily for discussion.