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Top infectious disease researcher says 'risk is real' for Ebola to become airborne


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(NaturalNews) There is a very real risk that Ebola could become an airborne disease, according to a recent New York Times editorial by Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

"The... possibility is one that virologists are loath to discuss openly but are definitely considering in private: that an Ebola virus could mutate to become transmissible through the air," he wrote.

Although virologists and public health officials have been discussing such a possibility privately, Osterholm said, they have been reluctant to say anything publicly for fear of inducing hysteria.

"They don't want to be accused of screaming 'Fire!' in a crowded theater -- as I'm sure some will accuse me of doing," Osterholm wrote. "But the risk is real, and until we consider it, the world will not be prepared to do what is necessary to end the epidemic."

Airborne in lab tests?

The ongoing Ebola outbreak in West Africa is the worst ever seen since the disease was first identified in 1976. Over the last six months, nearly 5,000 people have been infected and more than 2,400 have died. The disease is spreading so rapidly that the World Health Organization has warned that Guinea, Nigeria and Sierra Leone may each be seeing thousands of new cases per week by the beginning of October.

At present, the Ebola virus is transmitted only via close contact with bodily fluids such as blood, vomit and diarrhea. But viruses mutate so rapidly, Osterholm said, that the strain infecting people in West Africa now may already be significantly different genetically from what it was at the beginning of the outbreak.

Such mutations could lead to a change in the way the virus is transmitted, he said.

"If certain mutations occurred, it would mean that just breathing would put one at risk of contracting Ebola," he wrote.

In support of his concern, Osterholm cites a 2012 laboratory study, in which the same strain of Ebola currently wreaking havoc in West Africa was able to pass directly between pigs and monkeys via the air alone. The virus was not observed passing directly between monkeys via airborne transmission, however.

David Heymann, chair of the United Kingdom's Health Protection Agency, expressed skepticism that Ebola is likely to develop a radically new transmission method but admitted that it is possible. Scientists simply do not understand viral genetics well enough to rule the possibility out, he said, or to predict how the virus is likely to mutate over time.

Urgent action needed

Olsterholm and Heymann agree that the current outbreak urgently needs to be contained. In his editorial, Osterholm calls upon the United Nations to mobilize the resources necessary to "smother this epidemic."

Heymann said that, although the current outbreak is unusual in that it is spreading primarily through communities rather than through hospitals, the same techniques used to contain previous outbreaks should still be effective.

"The first thing to do is isolate any patient with the virus, and get them to hospital, while ensuring healthworkers are protected," Heymann said. "The second is contact tracing, to identify those at risk."

"And the third thing to help combat the virus is community empowerment, helping people understand how it spreads and how to stop it spreading," he said.

The same week that Olsterholm's editorial was published, researchers from Oxford University announced the results of a study finding that the risk of new Ebola outbreaks is much greater than previously thought.

Based on new evaluations of areas where humans are likely to come in contact with infected wildlife, animals could cause outbreaks in 22 different countries and threaten 22 million people.

To learn more about how to prepare for a potential Ebola crisis here in the U.S., be sure to check out the Natural News BioDefense.com resource:
BioDefense.com

Sources:

http://www.nytimes.com

http://www.dailymail.co.uk

http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca

http://science.naturalnews.com

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