September 14, 2014
The Spreading Threat of Ebola – Part III
BY Mary Mahoney
This is the third of a three-part series about the reappearance of the Ebola virus in Africa.
As the Ebola virus continues to spread across Africa, global health organizations are ramping up their efforts in the face of increased concerns over a possible pandemic.
Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told CNN recently after returning from West Africa that the epidemic is spreading widely through many countries and “spiraling out of control.”
In response, the World Health Organization convened a summit of experts in Geneva, Switzerland. The National Institutes of Health announced it is fast-tracking its Ebola testing vaccine program. And the WHO created an Ebola Response Roadmap, which lays out protocols for everything from handling blood samples to travel restrictions and safety guidelines for burial rites.
But even before human trials on a vaccine have begun, the journal Science reported the virus is mutating, a reminder of the challenges the medical community faces in staying ahead of nature’s ability to adapt.
We can blame our collective germ phobia of recent years, which left us awash in cleaning products with powerful antibacterial agents that actually lowered our society’s resistance to microbes.
Medical centers including Orlando Health also are seeing an increase in diseases, including pertussis, that previously were thought to have been all but eradicated with vaccines. The resurgence of these diseases can be blamed, in part, to the failure to vaccinate children, according to Scott Brown, director of infection prevention and control at Orlando Health, who added there is no medical reason why the “vast majority “ of children should not be vaccinated.
“There are a few children who cannot be vaccinated due to allergic reactions, but the vast majority can,” he said. “However, it is now a big worry for hospitals and schools when more and more children do not get vaccinated.”
Children must wait to be vaccinated until they are a year old, he said, making them vulnerable to infection by other children who already contracted the disease.
“As more and more kids don’t get vaccinated and get pertussis, they in turn infect infants who are too young to get the vaccine,” he said. “Those babies can die.” Orlando Health also is seeing more cases of the measles, which virtually had been eradicated 10 years ago, according to Brown.
New challenges also exist in fighting bacterial illnesses, he said. “Bacteria are going to adapt, but we can slow that down if you use antibiotics less. Doctors are now being more careful and give antibiotics less often.
“At Orlando Health, we have taken steps to make sure antibiotics are used appropriately. We track antibiotic use and ask doctors not to use certain ones without the hospital’s permission. We also give continuously updated educational materials to our medical staff.”
Scientists have found antibiotic and antimicrobial agents in our food, water and soil, meaning we all are consuming antibiotics unnecessarily. Antibiotic chemicals are leeching into the environment from waste products. Studies have linked some of these compounds to decreased immune response, endocrine-related conditions and some cancers.
A recent investigation into triclosan was somewhat of an eye opener. Triclosan is a powerful antimicrobial that was originally used in hospital and surgical hand scrubs. Over the years it has found its way into products where they don’t belong, including toothpaste, cutting boards, toys, soaps, clothing, cosmetics, mattresses and insulation, among other place.
According to a 2004 CDC study, 75 percent of participants age six or older had triclosan in their systems. A NIH study in 2013 found triclosan in lakes and streams. Another study suggested a possible association between triclosan resistance and resistance to other antimicrobials, including E-coli and salmonella enterica.
“Thus, widespread use of triclosan may represent a potential public health risk,” the report said.
While each report of Ebola spreading to a new African country raises concerns in other countries, it is somewhat comforting to know health-care centers across the country successful tackle infectious diseases every day by leveraging superior resources and technology.
The Ebola crisis is a reminder of our vulnerability, and it should heighten our awareness about infectious diseases. Dangerous microbes are always in motion. Our efforts to shield the U.S. population from mass epidemics could be defeated if a disease overwhelms our technology and systems.