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article imageEssential Science: Next pathogenic threats identified

By Tim Sandle     Jan 23, 2017 in Science
Recent years have been a number of pathogenic threats have hit the headlines, with Ebola being the foremost concern in recent years. Looking to the future, scientists have raised concerns about three viruses that the world now needs to prepare for.
In the wake of the Ebola crisis other viruses may emerge as significant threats. Ebola virus disease is the human disease which may be caused by any of four of the five known Ebola viruses. The name comes from Ebola River in Republic of the Congo, where it was first found. One of the common signs of the disease is bleeding from mucous membranes and puncture sites. It is normally fatal. From March 2014, West Africa experienced the largest outbreak of Ebola in history, with multiple countries affected. The crisis was made a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by the World Health Organization (WHO); following preventative measures, undertaken by health workers, the status was dropped in March 2016 and the cases abated with no new cases reported during the past twelve months. The last case in Sierra Leone, one of the heaviest hit countries, was, for example, on November, 7 2015.
Humanity has always faced pathogenic threats. With the continual expansion of human populations since prehistoric times, this has led to successive invasions of the human population by increasing number of human pathogens. A human pathogen refers to a pathogen (microbe or microorganism such as a virus, bacterium, prion, or fungus) that causes disease in humans. The most serious pathogens cause epidemics or pandemics. While many epidemics have been addressed over time, many medics and scientists cast an eye towards the next emerging threat.
Emerging infections are infections that are rapidly increasing in incidence or geographic range. There are typically two distinct stages in the emergence of infectious diseases: the introduction of a new infection to a host population, and the establishment within and dissemination from this population.
In terms of future threats for humanity, scientists have named three diseases that could cause the next global health emergency. These are: MERS, Lassa fever and Nipah virus. The risks presented from these viruses was presented to the World Economic Forum Davos in January 2017.
So far, governments and aid organizations have committed $460 million to developing vaccines against the viruses. The consortium of scientists argues that this is insufficient and they have called on the rich and powerful, who congregated at Davos for the World Economic Forum, to contribute a further $500 million.
The group calling for the additional spending are the recently formed (January 2017) Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. The main focus of the group is vaccine development and their goal is to have two experimental vaccines for each of the three called-out diseases by 2022. This will not be an easy task. Vaccine development is a lengthy process and the time to develop an effective vaccine is typically around ten years.
As to the imperative driving the new coalition, given how unprepared the world was for Ebola and Zika, to take recent examples, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations says that development work needs to start as soon as possible and be properly resourced so that the world can take on the next epidemic if, or perhaps when, it arises.
Discussing the call for additional spending with BBC News, Jeremy Farrar, who is the director of the Wellcome Trust (and part of the coalition) said: "Before the 2014 outbreak we only had very small Ebola epidemics that were in isolated communities that we were able to control. But in the modern world with urbanisation and travel, 21st Century epidemics could start in a big city and then take off the way Ebola did in West Africa.”
He telling added: “We have to be much better prepared.”
The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations is also funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Economic Forum, the government of Norway and the Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of S&T, Government of India.
The reason for focusing on Lassa, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Nipah virus are because they feature on the "top of the list" of 10 priority diseases that the World Health Organization has identified as potentially causing the next major outbreak.
So what are these diseases? Each is zoonotic, meaning a disease that can be transmitted from animals to people or, more specifically, a disease that normally exists in animals but that can infect humans.
Sahara camel calf feeding from her mother
Photo by Garrondo
MERS or MERS-CoV is the sixth new type of coronavirus like SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome). Coronaviruses are so called because they have crown-like projections on their surfaces. "Corona" in Latin means "crown" or "halo". Symptoms of MERS-CoV infection include renal failure and severe acute pneumonia, which often result in a fatal outcome. The disease is spread by animals, such as camels or bats, or from person-to-person.
Lassa Fever
A picture of a typical rat.
Discovery Channel
Lassa fever is a viral hemorrhagic fever caused by the Lassa virus. When symptoms occur they typically include fever, weakness, headaches, vomiting, and muscle pains. In addition, bleeding from the mouth or gastrointestinal tract can occur. The risk of death once infected is about one percent; however, many who survive develop. The disease is usually initially spread to people via contact with the urine or feces of an infected rat.
Nipah virus
Pigs taking part in pannage in the New Forest.
Pigs taking part in pannage in the New Forest.
Jim Champion
Nipah virus was initially isolated and identified during an outbreak of encephalitis and respiratory illness among pig farmers in Malaysia and Singapore, during 1999. To stop this outbreak, more than a million pigs were euthanized. The disease can lead to acute respiratory syndrome and fatal encephalitis.
Due to the potential seriousness of these diseases a far more contagious version of an Ebola like virus could emerge, and for this reason many scientists are urging accelerated vaccine development.
Essential Science
A bioreactor - a system that supports a biologically active environment.
A bioreactor - a system that supports a biologically active environment.
Eva Decker
This article is part of Digital Journal's regular Essential Science columns. Each week Tim Sandle explores a topical and important scientific issue. Last week the subject was the use of bacteria to produce a range of industrially important chemicals. The previous week we looked at how some heartburn medications have a connection with stroke risk. Here the article looked at the biomedical factors.
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