Scientist: Ebola outbreak unlikely in US

Courtesy photo: John Arnold Steven Bradfute’s work focuses on improving the effectiveness of experimental Ebola vaccines.

Courtesy photo: John Arnold
Steven Bradfute’s work focuses on improving the effectiveness of experimental Ebola vaccines.

By John Arnold
University of New Mexico

A poll released last week shows that nearly 40 percent of U.S. adults are worried there will be a large Ebola outbreak in this country. But such fears aren’t justified, Ebola experts say.

A large, lengthy Ebola outbreak like the one happening in West Africa would be unlikely in the United States, according to Steven Bradfute, a Portales native and University of New Mexico scientist who has studied the virus for years.

Bradfute, a research assistant professor at the UNM School of Medicine, said the disease isn’t nearly as transmissible as some other viruses, like influenza. Ebola is spread only through close contact with bodily fluids, rather than through the air.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hospitals in 27 states have investigated 68 possible Ebola cases — with samples from at least 10 of those cases going to the CDC for testing. All have been negative and there has never been a confirmed case of Ebola transmission in the U.S.

Still, the poll, conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health and market research firm SSRS, also shows that more than a quarter of adults are concerned they or someone in their immediate family might become sick with the Ebola virus over the next year.

“Ebola is not known to be transmitted by coughing, only by close contact,” Bradfute said in an interview in his UNM lab. “We should be vigilant about Ebola cases coming into the U.S., because it is a very dangerous virus. But if you isolate patients with infection, you can really contain it.”

In the U.S., modern health care facilities and public health measures make that containment relatively easy. But in other areas of the world that lack the same infrastructure and access to health care, it’s a much more difficult task.

The ongoing outbreak in West Africa, which has killed more than 1,350 people, sheds a light on the need for an Ebola vaccine, something Bradfute has been working on for years.

“A lot of people have been worried about this, and it confirms their fears,” said Bradfute.

“While the numbers of cases aren’t nearly as high as other viruses, the current outbreak does go to show that Ebola virus is very dangerous and you have to take it seriously.”

Bradfute has been trying to better understand how the Ebola virus is so good at blocking the body’s defenses. When the body’s early immune response is blocked, the virus can replicate more easily, leading to inflammation, internal bleeding and organ damage.

During the ongoing outbreak, the mortality rate has been between 50 and 60 percent. In earlier outbreaks dating back to the 1970s, the lethality rate has been as high as 90 percent.

“That’s what makes the virus so dangerous,” Bradfute said. “When the body’s early response is blocked, you get more virus, and then your body over-responds.”

Bradfute’s research began about the time terrorists attacked the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001.

A graduate student at the time, he decided “to do something that had a chance to be impactful to people.”

“And I really liked the idea of working on something that was largely unknown as far as the immune response,” he said. “It’s really fascinating work.”