UK & World News

  • 29 August 2014, 13:47

Ebola Crisis May Have Started At Healer Burial

The ebola outbreak which is sweeping West Africa may have begun at a funeral in Sierra Leone, scientists believe.

At least 14 women were infected with ebola after attending the burial of a traditional healer who believed she could cure the killer virus, a study suggests.

After the ceremony in May - which qualifies as a "super-spreader" event because of the number of people infected - the disease continued to spread.

But there have been hundreds of genetic changes along the way, which could make the virus easier to spread and harder to treat.

More than 500 new cases of ebola have been recorded over the past seven days, according to the World Health Organisation - the highest weekly increase since the outbreak began. 

Shortly after the WHO's announcement, Senegal confirmed that it was dealing with its first case of ebola. The patient is understood to be a Guinean national.

Riots have also broken out in Guinea following rumours that health workers deliberately infected locals with the ebola virus.

Gangs threatened to attack a hospital in Nzerekore, and several people were injured before soldiers intervened.

Experts at Harvard University now fear that pioneering treatments to prevent ebola could be obsolete by the time they are ready to be used, because this latest strain evolves too quickly.

Their warning, published in the Science journal, suggests that a new vaccine being developed by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) may be affected. 

Five co-authors of the report died of the virus before their work could be published.

From next Tuesday, the GSK treatment is going to be tested on 20 healthy volunteers in the US, in the hope that their immune systems respond.

Another experimental drug, ZMapp, may also become ineffective in the near future - but researchers believe this cutting-edge medicine remains beneficial for now.

Two US nationals who contracted the virus in Sierra Leone made a full recovery after taking it.

A National Institute of Health spokesman said: "From long experience with developing vaccines, you've got to be careful when you're putting it into humans.

"All the monkeys that were given a lethal dose of ebola died. All the animals who were vaccinated [with ZMapp] survived, so the results were pretty crisp and clear cut."

The concern over the efficacy of these new treatments comes after the World Health Organisation warned that there could be 20,000 cases of ebola in the current epidemic.

Its assistant director-general, Dr Bruce Aylward, said that "the outbreak continued to accelerate", but the health agency hoped to stop the disease spreading within the next nine months.

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