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Experimental Ebola Vaccine May Help Halt New Outbreak In Congo

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In trials, the experimental Ebola vaccine rVSV-ZEBOV provided protection against the killer virus. What makes the vaccine particularly difficult to use to contain the new outbreak in Congo?

  ( John Wessels | AFP/Getty Images )

The deadly hemorrhagic disease Ebola, which killed thousands during 2014 to 2016 West African outbreak, has resurfaced again.

New Ebola Outbreak

In a statement, which was released on May 10, the World Health Organization revealed that from April 9 to May 9, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has 32 potential cases of the disease, which include 18 deaths. The outbreak primarily hit the remote village of Ikoko Ipenge.

WHO and DRC also currently monitor for signs that may indicate that the infectious disease is spreading to other areas.

Experimental Ebola Vaccine

WHO said that it hopes to deploy an experimental vaccine for the outbreak as it plans for the worst-case scenario.

"We are very concerned and planning for all scenarios, including the worst-case scenario," Peter Salama, WHO's Deputy Director-General of Emergency Preparedness and Response said. "This is going to be tough and it's going to be costly to stamp out this outbreak," he said.

The Ebola vaccine was developed right at the end of the epidemic that hit West Africa. Tests conducted at the time showed that the vaccine called rVSV-ZEBOV provided protection against the killer virus.

Ring Vaccination

Researchers who tested the vaccine used the same strategy employed to eradicate smallpox in the 1970s. The so-called ring vaccination involves identifying a ring of people who have possibly come into contact with an infected individual and then vaccinating all these people after they are determined to be at risk.

The vaccine was studied in a trial that involved 11,841 people in Guinea in 2015. The researchers found that there were no Ebola cases among the 5,837 vaccinated people 10 days or more after getting vaccinated. Those who did not receive the vaccine, on the other hand, had 23 cases after 10 days or more.

"In addition to showing high efficacy among those vaccinated, the trial also shows that unvaccinated people in the rings were indirectly protected from Ebola virus through the ring vaccination approach (so called "herd immunity")." WHO said in a 2015 statement announcing the results of the final trial.

The side effects of the vaccine were mostly mild.

The Challenges

Using the vaccine to contain the current outbreak poses several challenges. One is that it needs to be kept in cold conditions, far below that of the normal freezers. It makes transporting to a remote region particularly challenging.

Nonetheless, if the vaccine succeeds in halting the outbreak, it may permanently change how the world responses to Ebola.

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