The Ebola virus appears to be rampaging unchecked across the globe, and there are predictions that the current, already significant, death toll of around 2,400 deaths could escalate into hundreds of thousands by the end of this year.
A study just published in Eurosurveillance has suggested that fatalities could far exceed the 20,000 originally predicted by the World Health Organisation (WHO) when the outbreak began. The researchers have attempted to assess mathematically the exponential spread of the disease by using case reports to determine the “reproductive number.” This number — usually shorted to R0 or “R-nought” — expresses how many cases of disease are likely to be caused by any one infected person. An R0 of less than 1 means an outbreak will die out; an R0 of more than 1 means an outbreak can be expected to increase. The new study has illustrated that the exponential increase in cases could result in a death toll of 277,124 by the end of 2014.
“Our analysis of the reproduction numbers of Ebola cases shows continuous growth from June (2014) to August 2014 that signaled a major epidemic,” said Hiroshi Nishiura, of the University of Tokyo, in a press release. “Uncontrolled cross-border transmission could fuel a major epidemic to take off in new geographical areas, as was seen in Liberia.”
The virus has already spread with alarming intensity and speed across Africa, from Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal to Sierra Leone, and there are growing concerns that it could eventually spread around the globe unless it is properly contained.
Ebola, dubbed years ago as "the virus that even scares scientists," causes horrendous symptoms as it attacks the internal organs, resulting in extensive bleeding, vomiting, and diarrhoea. Historically it was not thought to be particularly infectious, with transmission generally occurring only by close contact with infected body fluids, but there are now fears that this assumption may have underestimated the strength of the virus. Cases have now been identified where the Ebola has been transmitted by contact with deceased victims, and there are further fears that it could mutate and become an airborne disease.
Virologists have been loath to voice this dreadful possibility, but back in 2012 a team of Canadian scientists discovered that Ebola Zaire, the strain responsible for the current epidemic, had been passed between species – from pigs to monkeys – without direct contact. A post-mortem on the monkeys suggested that the disease had in fact been inhaled. The results of the study have been disputed, however, and other ideas for the cross-contamination put forward, including minute droplets of virus-laden water being accidently swept into the monkey’s cages.
Governments around the world are treating the threat from the virus very seriously; in the United States, President Obama has announced plans to expand resources in an attempt to try and contain the disease and prevent further spread. The mortality rate for Ebola is currently 53%, and there is still no known cure for this highly dangerous illness, though countries around the world, including Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Japan, are desperately trying to work on a vaccine.
There has been research looking for cures for the disease, including forays into so-called "alternative" therapies: studies using infected hamsters suggested that Genistein, a natural substance found in fermented soy products, fava beans, kudzu, coffee and red clover, helped to reduce the impact of Ebola and increased the chances of survival in those infected.
Other protocols used in treatment have included nutritional supplements such as magnesium salts, sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) glutathione, iodine, selenium and vitamin C.
Attempts to explore pharmaceutical solutions have focused on constraining viral replication, and work on a new drug called TKM-EBOLA, a drug that silences the cellular messages that allow viral proteins to be made, has been resumed. Trials were originally halted as the drug caused flu-like symptoms, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has lifted restrictions and allowed it to be tested on Ebola patients.
Other known antivirals, such as Favipiravir, an influenza treatment, are also being considered. Humic acid, a soil-derived nutritional supplement with a growing number of potential health benefits, has also been researched: back in 2002, The National Institutes of Health (NIH) published a report titled “Broad Spectrum Antiviral Effectiveness of Humates” which detailed humic acid’s effectiveness in fighting a variety of viral diseases including gastroenteritis, influenza, herpes, chicken pox, mononucleosis and the hemorrhaging fevers caused by the Ebola and Hanta viruses. Results indicated that humic acid was an effective preventative when consumed before the virus invaded the body. FDA research as far back as 1999 pronounced humic acid to be an effective anti-viral, but more research needs to be conducted to establish its full potential.
African medicine relies heavily on the use of herbals, and naturally in Ebola’s country of origin these possibilities have been explored. Bitter kola (Garcinia kola) is one substance thought to be of particular benefit, and this along with a host of other herbals is currently being researched by a team entitled the Scientific Committee on Verification of Herbal Cure Claims, set up last year by the National Agency for Food, Drug and Control (NAFDAC) to investigate herbal cures for Ebola. Bitter cola is a plant widely used in traditional African medicine, and is believed to contain a compound that is effective against Ebola virus disease.
Black market "cures" formulated from the blood of survivors are beginning to circulate, preying on fear and uncertainty as the disease begins to spread. People are being warned not to try the serum, which could actually be dangerous:
Margaret Chan, director-general of the WHO said: ‘There is a danger that such serums could contain other infections and wouldn’t be administered properly.’
Until such time as an effective cure can be found, however, the future is uncertain for those who do become infected. Conventional treatment is mostly palliative, comprising intravenous fluids, antibiotics, and oxygen; these, along with an injection of hope, still form the only weapons in our arsenal until science provides a viable alternative.