Risks for another Ebola outbreak remain high and for an even larger area, study shows

Health workers in Sierra Leone celebrate the discharge of the last known patient with Ebola. (Credit: IMC)

Lauren Hashiguchi contributed to this report

A wider swath of Africa is at risk for Ebola outbreaks than previously thought, according to a new study published in the journal eLife by researchers from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and the Oxford Big Data Institute. This comes on the heels of the news that U.S. emergency funding for Ebola may run out in October since the funds were transferred to combat Zika.

More than 11,000 died in the Ebola outbreak after the disease emerged in West Africa in 2013. The outbreak spurred new scientific research into this sporadic and mysterious disease. In response to this pressing need for improved data and surveillance, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation created maps that divided the region into five square kilometer blocks and assigned a risk level to each block.

“This research contributes to the ongoing discussion of not only where should we be prioritizing surveillance, but also where potential outbreaks can start,” lead author David Pigott said.

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Where conditions are ripe for Ebola to occur

Source: Updates to the zoonotic niche map of Ebola virus disease in Africa by David Pigott et al. published in eLife; also see the online visualization tool.

Source: Updates to the zoonotic niche map of Ebola virus disease in Africa by David Pigott et al. published in eLife; also see the online visualization tool.

Pigott and his team were able to draw a detailed picture of the risk of potential Ebola outbreaks in Africa by looking at places where Ebola has occurred and identifying different environmental factors that make these places suitable for transmission of the virus. They also incorporated data on different species of bats that could potentially transmit the virus.

You can view the maps in an online visualization tool.

Pigott and his colleagues have published Ebola risk maps in the past, but their newest study incorporates more data from a wider range of bat species. Like many recent pandemic viruses, Ebola is passed between animals and humans. It originates from human contact with animals like bats (and sometimes primates), but can also pass through body fluids between people, and potentially through sexual contact months after symptoms resolve. Therefore, to stay ahead of the epidemic, it is vital not only to measure human outbreaks, but to measure infections among animals (i.e. “zoonotic niches”).

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“To anticipate the next Ebola outbreak, we must continue to investigate all types of animals that could potentially be sources of Ebola,” Pigott said.

Despite ministry of health and international organizations’ response to the West African Ebola outbreak, the risk of future widespread outbreaks remains high. Through ongoing surveillance and prevention research, opportunities remain to stem the disease’s spread.

Researchers and policymakers can share data through the online Ebola mapping tool and can use it to develop preparedness plans for Ebola outbreaks. In 2015, IHME, in partnership with INDEPTH Network, trained veterinarians, epidemiologists, researchers and medical officers in Accra, Ghana, to use the tool and gathered their feedback to improve its usability.

“There are so many unknowns with Ebola, so we need to continuously leverage the information that we do have,” Pigott said. “In collaboration with our partners, we must continue to expand and revise these maps as we go along.”

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About Author

Katie Leach-Kemon

Katherine (Katie) Leach-Kemon is a policy translation specialist at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). Katie specializes in two of IHME's research areas, the Global Burden of Disease and health financing. Katie has helped produce IHME's Financing Global Health report since it was first published in 2009. She received an MPH from the University of Washington and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger. Her work has been published in The Lancet, Health Affairs, and the Journal of the American Medical Association. You can follow her on Twitter @kleachkemon.