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ADVANCE Discourse: Lab

Unsung Heroes

Published August 29, 2014 1:53 PM by Michael Jones

I’ve discussed the spread of the Zaire ebolavirus before, but as it continues to overwhelm countries in West Africa, scientists have been able to track the virus in real time. A recent article from NPR followed a team of researchers as they collected and analyzed data on the genetic structure of the virus from its victims in Sierra Leone. As the researchers monitored the ebola spread, they noticed that it was rapidly mutating, “about twice as quickly as it did while circulating among animals in the past decade or so.”

The data was collected onsite as soon as possible and, according to the article, resulted in the death of five scientists who contracted the virus. Despite this, the tremendous effort led to the gathering of 99 ebola genomes for analysis. While the virus’ genome contains only seven genes (relatively small in comparison to the human genome’s 20,000), the article noted that the researchers have already, “found over 250 mutations that are changing in real time as we’re watching” -- a figure with significant implications for current treatments, which are experimental and rely on the known genetic makeup of the virus.

Meanwhile, men and women serving in healthcare facilities, clinics or in collaboration with Doctors Without Borders are consistently putting themselves at risk for the dangerous infection. These are nurses, doctors and laboratorians alike -- both local and international. One particularly brave group of workers heroes was highlighted in another NPR story, which followed the people responsible for collecting and disposing of the bodies of ebola victims in Liberia.

According to the story, the virus has already been responsible for 700 deaths and over 1,300 cases. The corpses remain highly contagious and can add to the already devastating rate of infection in Monrovia. These crews of “body collectors” must gather the bodies to dispose of them safely -- a task that carries unbelievable risks -- and prevent the further spread of the virus. In order to prepare, each collector wears protective gear, including surgical scrubs, rubber boots, white plastic jumpsuits, face masks and goggles -- and they all pray for luck together before getting started.

Whether it’s the scientists working to analyze the virus in the search for a cure or the hands-on professionals working with ebola on a day-to-day basis, their role is crucial. They are all unsung heroes. 

3 comments

We need to be hoping that Ebola and Marburg viruses do not mutate to the point where they are readily transmitted by an airborne route. A Canadian study showed that when Ebola Zaire virus-infected swine were housed in the same room with monkeys, that all of the latter died of the infection.  Read the Pathogen Safety Data Sheet on Ebola virus put out by the Canadian govt.  I wouldn't be surprised if Ebola were spread by droplet nuclei, but that would require people to be standing much closer to each other than it would be necessary to contract chickenpox or rubeola.

Linda Pifer, Clin. Lab. Sci. - Professor, Univ. of TN Health Sci. Cntr. September 20, 2014 5:04 PM
Memphis TN

Thanks for your interest! NPR stands for National Public Radio. The two stories mentioned in this blog came from the health section of the NPR website.

Michael Jones September 9, 2014 6:09 PM

Twice mentioned - "article in NPR."  Is this a medical journal? What does "NPR" stand for?

Dean, Testing - Dr, Lab September 9, 2014 1:37 PM
San Antonio TX

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