TIME ebola

The Ebola Virus Is Mutating, Say Scientists

Guinea West Africa Ebola
A health care worker, right, takes the temperatures of school children for signs of the Ebola virus before they enter their school in the city of Conakry, Guinea, Monday, Jan. 19, 2015 Youssouf Bah—AP

The outbreak has so far claimed 8,795 lives across the affected West African region

Scientists at a French research institute say the Ebola virus has mutated and they are studying whether it may have become more contagious.

Researchers at the Institut Pasteur are analyzing hundreds of blood samples from Guinean Ebola patients in an effort to determine if the new variation poses a higher risk of transmission, according to the BBC.

“We’ve now seen several cases that don’t have any symptoms at all, asymptomatic cases,” said human geneticist Dr. Anavaj Sakuntabhai. “These people may be the people who can spread the virus better, but we still don’t know that yet. A virus can change itself to less deadly, but more contagious and that’s something we are afraid of.”

Although virus mutations are common, researchers are concerned that Ebola could eventually morph into an airborne disease if given enough time.

However, there is no evidence to suggest this has happened yet, and the virus is still spread only via direct contact with an infected person.

Institut Pasteur, which first pinpointed the current Ebola outbreak last March, is hoping that two vaccines they are developing will reach human trials by the end of the year.

Current figures indicate 8,795 of some 22,000 cases across Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone — around 40% — have been fatal.

[BBC]

TIME ebola

Doctors Without Borders Sees Fewer New Ebola Cases

SWITZERLAND-HEALTH-EBOLA-REDCROSS-AID-TRAINING
Health workers of the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC) and medical charity Doctors Without Borders take part in a pre-deployment training for staff heading to Ebola areas on Oct. 29, 2014 in Geneva. Fabrice Coffrini—AFP/Getty Images

“We are on the right track," said Brice de la Vingne, the group's director of operations

The medical aid group Doctors Without Borders, or Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), says it’s seeing declines in new cases of Ebola in its centers in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

There are just over 50 patients currently in MSF’s Ebola treatment centers across the three countries, the organization announced on Monday.

“This decline is an opportunity to focus efforts on addressing the serious weaknesses that remain in the response,” Brice de la Vingne, MSF director of operations said in a statement. “We are on the right track, but reaching zero cases will be difficult unless significant improvements are made in alerting new cases and tracing those who have been in contact with them.”

There is still work to do on that score; in Guinea and Liberia only half of the new cases are people who are known contacts of people with Ebola. Since just a single case can spur an outbreak, more contact tracing is needed.

MORE: TIME Person of the Year: Ebola Fighters

In Sierra Leone, incidences of Ebola have dropped to their lowest levels since August, though there are still hot zones like the country’s capital of Freetown. Guinea’s caseloads are also dropping, but more cases are coming from regions that were previously thought to be leveling out. Liberia has experienced some of the greatest drops out of all three countries. MSF says that on Jan. 17, there were no Ebola cases at the organization’s ELWA 3 Ebola management center in the capital city of Monrovia, and currently there are only two patients.

The latest case numbers from the World Health Organization (WHO) show cases have reached 21,724 with 8,641 deaths.

TIME ebola

Two Ebola Vaccines Are Heading to Trials in Liberia

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during a House Energy and Commerce Committee subcommittee hearing on the U.S. public health response to the Ebola outbreak in Washington, D.C., Oct. 2014.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during a House Energy and Commerce Committee subcommittee hearing on the U.S. public health response to the Ebola outbreak in Washington, D.C., Oct. 2014. Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Two vaccines will start trials in February

The long-awaited vaccine for Ebola is heading to clinical trials in Liberia.

Two vaccines, with the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) support, will start efficacy testing in Liberia in the beginning of February.

The NIH is launching the trial in collaboration with the Liberian Ministry of Health. The trial will test two vaccines against a placebo. People in Liberia who agree to participate in the trial will be split evenly into three groups. Two groups will test separate vaccines and the third group will be given a placebo. The trial will take place in Montserrado County, which includes the capital Monrovia, one of the country’s hardest-hit regions.

MORE: TIME Person of the Year: Ebola Fighters

The vaccines have already undergone early safety trials at various sites in the U.S., Europe, and in parts of Africa. “There were no significant safety concerns and [the vaccine] induced the type of response that was quite comparable to the animal response of the monkeys,” says Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). Prior trials in monkeys had shown the vaccine made the animals immune to the virus.

Initially the target date for the vaccine trial in West Africa had been end of January, but some logistics still need to be worked out. Fauci told TIME that he can say with almost certainty that the trials will indeed launch in early February. “There are a couple of minor issues that we are just ironing out with regard to the protocol with the FDA,” says Fauci. “Nothing that’s a show stopper.”

One of the two vaccines being tested is a vaccine developed and tested by the NIH and pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), and the other vaccine is coming from biotech company NewLink Genetics and the pharmaceutical company Merck.

When the trial starts, the vaccines will initially be given to 600 people to collect additional data on the vaccine’s safety. If all goes well, the second part of the trial will launch with 27,000 people.

TIME ebola

Ebola Epidemic May End by June 2015 In Liberia

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At one time in 2014, Liberia experienced the fastest growing number of Ebola cases SCOTT CAMAZINE—Getty Images/Photo Researchers RM

That’s only if current hospitalization rates continue, say researchers

Understanding the ebb and flow of the Ebola outbreak that erupted in West Africa last year—and continues to percolate in the three hardest hit countries—is critical to stopping it. That means knowing who’s getting infected, where the highest rates of transmission are occurring and which strategies work best to control its spread.

Scientists initially thought that even if almost every infected person could be hospitalized, it wouldn’t stop the rapid spread of the Ebola virus for months to come. But researchers in the U.S. are now predicting in the journal PLOS Biology that the epidemic in Liberia, which at one point had the biggest explosion in Ebola cases, could peter out by June 2015.

MORE: TIME Person of the Year: The Ebola Fighters

In coming up with their predictive models, the researchers, led by John Drake University of Georgia, took into account data from previous outbreaks of Ebola, as well as probabilities about infection rates among healthcare workers, family members of the infected and those who are exposed to the virus during burials.

In order for Liberia’s Ebola outbreak to end, new hospital beds would have to be added at the same current rate (300 were provided between July and September 2014), the study authors concluded. That would allow 85% of infected patients to be treated with the nutritional and hydration therapy that is critical to overcome the infection. If new beds aren’t continually added, then hospitalization rates could drop back down to 70%, and cases may start to outpace public health workers’ ability to contain the disease.

MORE: U.N. Official Says Ebola Can Be Beat in 2015

Burial practices need to change as well. Cultural norms include touching the bodies of the deceased, which spreads the Ebola virus in a community. Safer burial practices, in which infected patients are isolated from healthy people, are keeping transmission levels under control, the authors say.

MORE: Ebola Vaccine Is Safe and Effective, According to First Study

The key to reducing the number of Liberia’s Ebola cases by summer is ensuring that anyone who is sick is hospitalized. “These modeling exercises suggested that in the absence of rapid hospitalization of most cases, none of the proposed scenarios for increasing hospital capacity would have been likely to achieve containment,” the authors write. “Continuing on the path to elimination will require sustained watchfulness and individual willingness to be treated.”

TIME Photojournalism Links

Photojournalism Daily: Jan. 9, 2015

A compilation of the most interesting photojournalism found on the web, curated by Mikko Takkunen

Today’s daily Photojournalism Links collection highlights Alex Maclean‘s aerial photographs of Detroit. The work captures the contrasting fortunes and economic inequality between the depopulated areas (defined by vacant lots and boarded-up homes) and the wealth of some surrounding areas (mansions and manicured lawns). It can appear bleak, but there’s cause for optimism as Detroit’s worst decline appears to be slowing, evident by new green spaces and corporate investment. Maclean’s pictures offer an excellent and insightful bird’s-eye view on the struggles of Motor City and its fight to survive.

Alex S. MacLean: Detroit by Air (The New York Times)

In Memoriam: Remembering the Photographers We Lost in 2014 (TIME LightBox)

An Intern Learns to Swim in the Deep End (National Geographic PROOF) Sara Lewkowicz won a three-month internship at National Geographic when she came out on top at last year’s College Photographer of the Year competition. She talks about her experience and shares photographs she made during her internship project in Mexico.

John Moore (BBC Radio 4 World at One) The Getty photographer is interviewed about his Ebola coverage in Liberia. See TIME LightBox interview as well.

David Burnett (Photo Brigade) The legendary photographer talks about his career at length.

TIME ebola

Clinical Trial for Ebola Drug Starts in Liberia

University of Utah Researchers Work Toward Cure For Ebola Strains
A container holds a Peptide that contains a potential new drug candidates for testing against a part of Ebola that is vulnerable to drugs, at the University of Utah on Oct. 14, 2014 in Salt Lake City. George Frey—Getty Images

University of Oxford researchers are offering patients in Liberia a new drug for Ebola

Scientists have started testing an experimental drug for Ebola in a Liberian hospital.

University of Oxford researchers have launched a trial of the drug, brincidofovir, in Doctors Without Borders’ Ebola center in Monrovia. The drug has previously been used to treat patients with Ebola in the United States, like Thomas Eric Duncan, NBC cameraman Ashoka Mukpo, and Dr. Craig Spencer.

When patients at the unit are informed they have Ebola, they will be offered the opportunity to participate in the trial. Patients who volunteer will be given two weeks of brincidofovir. The researchers estimate there will be about 140 participants. “Typically it takes over 18 months to start a trial. Here we have done it in less than four months,” Trudie Lang, an Oxford University professor, said in a statement. “Everyone has pulled together to make it happen—a Herculean effort by all those involved.”

MORE: TIME Person of the Year, the Ebola Fighters

The drug, which was originally developed for other viruses, has shown promise fighting the Ebola virus in test-tubes, but it’s nearly impossible to know whether the drug has been of any use in the small number of patients who have tried it.

Brincidofovir is manufactured by the pharmaceutical company Chimerix in Durham, N.C. The trial is funded by the biomedical research foundation, the Wellcome Trust.

To date, 20,712 people have been infected with Ebola during the current outbreak and 8,220 have died.

TIME Photojournalism Links

Photojournalism Daily: Jan. 5, 2015

A compilation of the most interesting photojournalism found on the web, curated by Mikko Takkunen

Today’s daily Photojournalism Links collection highlights Daniel Berehulak‘s stunning work from Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone for a comprehensive New York Times account that charts the devastating resurgence of Ebola in West Africa last year. One of the photographs captures the Guinean village where a one-year-old boy, considered to be Patient Zero of the outbreak, died just over a year ago. It’s both painterly yet haunting, as it captures the birth place of a health crisis that has led to thousands of deaths.

Daniel Berehulak: How Ebola Roared Back (The New York Times) See also the slideshow: Ebola Ravages Economies in West Africa

Ross McDonnell: Notes from Underground (TIME LightBox) Pictures show civilians in eastern Ukraine sheltering in Cold War era bunkers

Brendan Hoffman (BBC Radio 4 World at One) Hoffman about his work in Ukraine and on the MH17 crash site

Toward A New Documentary Expression (Aperture) Stephen Mayes reflects on documentary photography’s shifting terrain

PhotoBooks 2014 (Vogue Italia) The magazine asked photo editors, artists, photographers and photography experts to choose the photobooks that defined the year

TIME ebola

U.N. Official Says Ebola Can Be Beat in 2015

Red Cross workers carry away the body of a person suspected of dying from the Ebola virus, in the Monrovia, Liberia on Oct. 4, 2014.
Red Cross workers carry away the body of a person suspected of dying from the Ebola virus in Monrovia, Liberia on Oct. 4, 2014. Pascal Guyot—AFP/Getty Images

"We have a long and difficult way to go," U.N. health official says

A United Nations official said Friday that the Ebola outbreak can be stomped out in 2015 but that months of hard work remain to stop the virus that has killed almost 8,000 people.

“We have not come anywhere close to ending the crisis. We’ve done a lot in 90 days in a very successful response but we have a long and difficult way to go,” Anthony Banbury, head of the U.N. Mission for Ebola Emergency Response told reporters.

His comments were reported by Reuters.

Read more: The Ebola fighters are TIME’s 2014 Person of the Year

“It’s going to go on for not just weeks but some months more,” Banbury said. “But I believe we will do it in 2015 and we’re going to do it by working very closely not just with governments of the countries but the communities.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon created the international body’s Ebola mission in September to ramp up the international response to the crisis. Banbury is the outgoing mission chief. He’ll be replaced by Ould Cheikh Ahmed on Saturday.

[Reuters]

TIME health

Ebola Survivor Rick Sacra: Why I’m Going Back to Liberia in the New Year

Dr. Rick Sacra, an American doctor who contracted the Ebola virus in Africa in September of 2014.
Dr. Rick Sacra, an American doctor who contracted the Ebola virus in Africa in September of 2014. Stephan Savoia—AP

Dr. Rick Sacra is a Family Physician who has served as an SIM missionary at ELWA Hospital in Monrovia, Liberia, since 1995.

I’ve spent nearly two decades providing medical care in the country, and the ongoing epidemic only makes continuing my work more compelling

Over the last few weeks, more and more people have been asking me, “Are you going back to Liberia? Why?” Ever since I turned the corner in Nebraska and started improving, I’ve been telling people my goal was to be back in Liberia once I was healthy. And now I have medical clearance to go. But as to the question “Why?” I suppose there are several facets to that—personal ones, and also “big picture” answers.

My answer concerns my relationship with God, as well as Liberia. God led me to become a medical missionary many years ago. The passion that motivated me then is still the one that motivates me now: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” To see people’s lives enriched through better health and the experience of God’s love is still what drives me. The ongoing Ebola epidemic only makes that more compelling. Is there risk involved? Yes, but some risks are worth taking. Besides, my doctors tell me I’m now immune to the Zaire strain of Ebola.

I’ve spent nearly two decades providing medical care in Liberia, which has among the fewest doctors per capita of any country on Earth. After 14 years of civil war, which ended in 2003, Liberia entered a period of recovery and preparation for development. SIM, the mission agency I work with, is not only committed to serving through our work at ELWA Hospital in Liberia and other ministries, but is also pursuing a vision for training doctors for the future of Liberia through a Family Medicine Residency Program. The details of this are being worked out with the Liberia College of Physicians and Surgeons, which recently initiated residency training in Liberia. Our hope is that, after the Ebola epidemic has been controlled, the doors will open for us to contribute to the future of health care in Liberia in this way—a future that will involve more and better equipped practitioners, able to recognize and contain whatever comes next more effectively.

But right now, Liberia continues to struggle with new cases of Ebola every single day. In partnership with Liberia’s Ministry of Health, SIM’s ELWA Hospital is involved in Ebola treatment, including clinical trials to assess the benefit of various treatments for Ebola. But we are also running a hospital, one of the few that remained open through the months of August, September, and October of 2014. We are providing care for the vulnerable populations of children and pregnant women, as well as treatment for malaria, for HIV/AIDS, and for chronic diseases like hypertension and diabetes. This will be my main work while in Liberia for about four weeks in January and February. My goal is to lighten the heavy burden on my colleagues just a little, to help them avoid burnout and exhaustion. I count it a great privilege to work alongside both expatriate and Liberian doctors and nurses who have been risking their lives every day for the last six months to make a difference in Liberia. These are the true heroes.

Continue to pay attention to what is happening in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, even when the Ebola epidemic is no longer in the headlines. As I am writing this, Sierra Leone is experiencing high rates of new infections, with hotspots both in the capital, Freetown, and in rural districts. Guinea and Liberia both continue to have Ebola cases, but rates of new infections have stabilized. However, even one case can lead to a new outbreak if precautions are not taken, to avoid exposure to blood and body fluids, and to bury bodies properly.

Many lessons have been learned fighting the Ebola epidemic: public health structures have been improved, drugs are being tested, vaccines are in active trials. But in order to eliminate the threat of Ebola for all of us, we must continue this effort until it has been eradicated where it sprang up. West Africa may seem far away, but this crisis has shown that we are all neighbors, and that problems in Africa affect us more than we thought.

You can help end the Ebola epidemic by making an end-of-year contribution to a group that is working in West Africa to defeat Ebola. Good examples include SIM, Samaritan’s Purse, World Vision, Doctors without Borders, Partners in Health, the Wellbody Alliance, Red Cross, International Medical Corps, and Save the Children.

Ebola survivor Dr. Rick Sacra is a Family Physician who has served as an SIM missionary at ELWA Hospital in Monrovia, Liberia, since 1995.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME ebola

Ebola Cases Reach Over 20,000

Health workers push a gurney with a dead body at a Red Cross facility in the town of Koidu, Kono district Eastern Sierra Leone on Dec. 19, 2014.
Health workers push a gurney with a dead body at a Red Cross facility in the town of Koidu, Kono district Eastern Sierra Leone on Dec. 19, 2014. Baz Ratner—Reuters

There's close to 400 new cases in just four days

Cases of Ebola in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea have reached over 20,000.

New numbers released from the World Health Organization (WHO) on Monday show Ebola has infected 20,081 people and killed 7,842. That’s nearly 400 new cases of the disease in just four days.

Despite missions launched by countries and international groups like the United States and United Nations in the last few months, the disease continues to spread. Sierra Leone has passed Liberia in number of cases. Many are anxiously awaiting a vaccine that’s been estimated to become available in the early part of the new year and researchers are also working on developing drugs to treat Ebola.

Some experts believe the epidemic will last a full second year.

MORE: TIME Person of the Year: Ebola Fighters

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