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New Ebola Outbreak In Congo: Can Vaccines Prevent An Epidemic?

14 May 2017, 10:08 am EDT By Luan Chan Tech Times
A new Ebola outbreak has just been confirmed in the Democratic Republic of Congo but vaccine rVSV Zebov-GP could end it. Just how effective are vaccines in the face of epidemics?  ( WHO/S. Hawkey )

The World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed a new ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo's (DRC) Bas Uele Province on May 12, just over a week since it celebrated the collective effort that created the rVSV Zebov-GP vaccine.

Since the world now has a vaccine for the deadly virus that took thousands of lives, some may believe that the spread of the disease would be cut short. However, can vaccines really prevent an epidemic from happening in the future? Let's take a closer look.

The rVSV Zebov-GP Ebola Vaccine

The ebola vaccine came forth from the combined effort of WHO, governments, health workers, international and local scientists, and private and public funding organizations. Of course, it would not have seen a successful clinical trial without the people who consented to test the vaccine.

The rVSV Zebov-GP vaccine offers 100 percent protection against the disease for people who live in close contact with ebola patients. It also extends protection to unvaccinated individuals through "herd immunity," which means that the vaccine can prevent the spread of disease up to a certain degree. The experimental ebola vaccine, however, works on only one subtype of ebola and has yet to receive a proper license.

Congo Ebola Epidemic

The DRC's ebola epidemic currently affects a small number of people and is still manageable with proper handling. WHO, however, is still investigating the scale of the outbreak.

"An investigation team led by the Ministry of Health and supported by WHO and partners has deployed and is expected to reach the affected area in the coming day," Dr. Peter Salama, WHO Executive Director for Emergencies, said.

Despite WHO's involvement and the presence of a vaccine, the small epidemic could still reach pandemic levels if the vaccine and disease subtype don't match and patients don't cooperate.

To be fair, DRC has already experienced several ebola epidemics since 1976 but the last three outbreaks all involved fewer than 100 cases, even without a vaccine.

Conditions For The Vaccine To Work

Experts believe that the world is still underprepared when it comes to facing deadly infectious diseases and, as mentioned above, there are still certain conditions before a vaccine would be able to efficiently prevent large-scale epidemics.

The current ebola vaccine is still very limited since it only protects against one subtype-the Zaire ebolavirus-but, as we all know, viruses have a tendency to mutate and become even more deadly faster than experts can produce vaccines.

In the instance that the vaccine perfectly matches the disease that is circulating, success would still depend on patient consent and government support before healthcare workers can be deployed to administer vaccines from the supplier.

That part can be considered the trickiest since conditions become worse as time passes without immediate action. According to a report, Merck - the manufacturer of rVSV Zebov-GP vaccine - and the DRC government are still in the middle of discussions whether the vaccine should be administered to the remote communities affected by the current epidemic.

While that is a frustrating situation, it does have its merit since administering a vaccine that is not sure to work on an unidentified subtype of virus seems fruitless, especially if the strain turns out to be different.

Vaccines are not cures and do not guarantee that a person would never have the disease, especially if the disease has many subtypes and has the tendency to mutate. They do, however, guarantee that the chances of contracting a deadly disease and dying from it become slimmer.

Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, WHO Assistant Director-General for Health Systems and Innovation, believes that an efficient healthcare system is a better prevention than vaccines. For economically challenged communities and countries that cannot provide this, however, vaccines could be the people's best bet at preventing large scale outbreaks by limiting the number of possible carriers that would aid in the virus distribution.

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