October 2014

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Health Capsule

Genetic Clues to the 2014 Ebola Outbreak

Scientists sequenced the genomesThe entire set of genetic instructions in an organism or virus. of nearly 100 samples of Ebola virus from patients in West Africa. The findings are helping researchers track the origin and spread of this deadly virus.

The 2014 Ebola outbreak is the largest in history. By late September, more than 7,100 Ebola infections and 3,300 deaths were reported by the World Health Organization. It’s the first Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the first to affect major cities.

Ebola can spread from one person to another through direct contact with body fluids, such as blood or saliva. Infections can cause vomiting, diarrhea, kidney and liver damage, and bleeding inside and outside the body. There are no approved drugs for Ebola infections. However, fast diagnosis and medical care can improve chances of survival.

To learn more about the recent outbreak, an international research team collected virus samples from 78 patients living near the origin of the 2014 outbreak. The scientists used advanced technologies to quickly and accurately analyze the viral genomes. The results were compared to Ebola genomes from earlier outbreaks.

Analyses showed that the strain responsible for the 2014 outbreak likely moved from Central to West Africa over a 10-year period. The team also found that the virus was brought into the African country of Sierra Leone by 14 people. These people had all attended the funeral of a healer who treated Ebola patients in a nearby country.

The research shows how “genomic surveillance” can help track and possibly help slow the spread of Ebola as the outbreak continues. Understanding the genetics of the virus will also help scientists develop new and improved drugs and vaccines. NIH recently announced the launch of an early-stage trial to begin human testing of an experimental vaccine.