Vaccines deployed as Ebola strikes the Congo

Toxic: Doctors wear protective suits to avoid contracting the highly infectious virus. © Getty

Can we end the scourge of global pandemics? Dozens have died as a fresh Ebola outbreak hits central Africa. The lives of potentially thousands more depend on a new experimental vaccine.

At least 26 people have died as a fresh outbreak of Ebola grips the Democratic Republic of Congo. What began as a handful of cases in rural areas has now reached the city of Mbandaka — where it could spread even faster.

Ebola is incredibly deadly and contagious. Those infected suffer a high fever, vomiting, and diarrhoea — around 50% of cases end in death.

Between 2013 and 2016, a vicious epidemic ravaged several West African countries, killing 11,310 people.

But this time doctors have a brand new weapon: an experimental vaccine. If it works, it would contribute to a global trend which sees doctors slowly winning the war against infectious diseases.

And with modern drugs it is surely impossible for the 21st century world to suffer pandemics on the scale of the Black Death.

Or so you might think. Medicine is improving, but other changes may be increasing the risk of pandemics.

For example, more people than ever now live in cities; the United Nations predicts that 66% of the world will live in urban areas by 2050. As more people are squeezed close together, disease has more chance to thrive.

Then there is tourism. In 2017, there were 1.3 billion tourist arrivals across the world — every flight a potential vehicle for pathogens to spread across borders.

Can we stop pandemics for good?

On the mend

It is possible, some argue. And if this vaccine works, it will be the latest example of the power of modern medicine. Sanitation in developing nations has also improved remarkably in recent decades. Progress will bring an end to pandemics.

But progress also brings greater dangers, others respond. For example, antibiotics have saved millions, but they also help drug-resistant superbugs to evolve. And modern megacities provide the perfect place for diseases to thrive. Pandemics are our future.

You Decide

  1. Are pandemics the biggest threat facing humanity?

Activities

  1. Using facts and figures from this article, write a quiz consisting of five questions concerning the recent Ebola outbreak. Test your classmates knowledge. Did they get all the answers right?

Some People Say...

“The ideal of medicine is to eliminate the need of a physician.”

William James Mayo

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
This is the ninth recorded outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo since the disease was identified in 1976. The previous outbreak occurred last year and killed four people.
What do we not know?
How far it is likely to spread. Mbandaka is a major transport hub on the Congo River and there are fears it could reach the capital, Kinshasa. We also do not know how effective the vaccine will be.

Word Watch

Contagious
Ebola is spread through contact with the blood, body fluids, secretions or organs of somebody who is infected.
Pandemics
When a disease spreads across an extremely large area, or the entire world. A pandemic is more severe than an epidemic.
Black Death
A plague which killed between 75 and 200 million people during the 14th century.
Arrivals
According to the World Tourism Organisation.
Improved
According to a 2015 World Health Organisation report, 91% of the global population uses an improved drinking water source, up from 76% in 1990.

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