This is the latest in an ongoing series covering advancements in the fight against Ebola. Click here for more articles.
As of January 2015, the World Health Organization reports that there have been over 21,000 cases of Ebola throughout West Africa, and just over 8,500 deaths. While the outbreak has slowed down slightly in the last couple months, the virus is still spreading and affecting the lives of thousands of people.
In an effort to stop the current outbreak and gain a better understand of the virus as a whole, the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Wellcome Trust have come together with support from the Enhancing Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance’s (ELRHA) Research for Health in Humanitarian Crisis (R2HC) program. Between these organizations, a total of £1.34 million has been pledged and split between seven innovative projects.
Professors Simon Hay and Nick Golding at Oxford University are leading one of the projects, titled “Predicting the Geographic Spread of Ebola Virus Disease in West Africa.” The goal is to use data to predict the spread of the virus. This will ideally allow resources to be given out accordingly in the right locations, warn communities of a potential pending outbreak, and help prepare health clinics for incoming patients.
They developed maps showing where Ebola has the potential to spread based on both human mobility and animal contact. It’s believed that the current outbreak, which began nearly a year ago, started when a human came in contact with an infected bat. Most of the animal-to-human transmissions (which are referred to as zoonotic events) were done by bats, which can carry the virus for a prolonged period without being negatively affected by it. While creating the maps, Hay and Golding looked at infections that were transmitted via zoonotic events between 1976 and the present.
Their data were based on “human mobility, population density, and transport infrastructure in West African countries” to create the maps and help predict further outbreaks. These research methods have been used to track other viruses and diseases such as malaria, but this is the first time it’s being used to track Ebola.
They also looked at environment conditions where the bats live and compared them to other areas; if the conditions are the same and the bats are believed to be carrying the Ebola virus, then it is likely — albeit not inevitable — that a human could contract the virus in those locations. Knowing where these animals are allows people to be aware and avoid those areas, which lessens the likelihood of contact.
The maps can help warn neighboring countries of possible future outbreaks. By knowing where the virus is located and being able to accurately predict where it may move to, health centers will be able to better utilize the supplies that they have, and ensure the best care for patients.
The mapping systems have predicted that the Ebola virus has the potential to continue its spread throughout Western Africa, and also enter countries located in the center of the continent where the virus has infected people in the past. It has pinned 15 new countries (alongside the previous 7 affected countries), equaling a total of 22 countries that are currently at risk of seeing the virus infect more humans. If the predictions come true, nearly 22 million Africans would be at risk of contracting the virus.
The full research report is here.