Ebola vaccine is 97.5% effective

Over the last few years, we have witnessed a number of Ebola epidemics that have claimed tens of thousands of lives. First appearing in 1976 in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), this rare and deadly virus spreads via contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids and can kill by causing heavy bleeding and organ failure.

Although there are reports of infected patients every few years, the vast majority of cases have occurred in Africa. As such, the virus caused a mild panic in 2014 when a traveler arrived in the U.S. and infected two nurses. While that outbreak resulted in only four confirmed cases within the U.S., the virus has continued to wreak havoc in West African countries with over 11,000 deaths as of 2015.

Today, in what has been described as “the world’s second-biggest Ebola outbreak,” doctors in DRC are struggling to combat the rising death toll. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), this outbreak has seen over 1,200 cases of the Ebola virus since it began last Aug., 110 of which were reported in the last week alone. Of these, 814 people are reported to have died from the disease.

Relief measures are only further complicated by the mysterious nature of the virus and the outbreak’s path. Although medical officials have been aware of the virus for decades, the exact source is still unknown (although bats are believed to be the most likely suspect). This, compounded with suspicions towards foreigners, makes tracking the spread of the outbreak nearly impossible. As long as that remains the case, efforts made to contain the outbreak will remain ineffective.

With that in mind, health specialists are not optimistic about halting this epidemic in its tracks. The director of the WHO Collaborating Center on Global Health Law, Lawrence Gostin, said that “all the data point in the direction of an extended epidemic.” And although there is no guaranteed cure, early treatment does significantly increase the likelihood of survival.

Fortunately, there may be hope in a new, experimental vaccine that has shown to be 97.5% effective in preventing the disease. The vaccine is currently being deployed in a “ring vaccination strategy,” named for the social “rings” of immunization that it builds around people in contact with known Ebola cases. Considered to be “the most effective” vaccination strategy, it has been used to eradicate smallpox and was used during the last Ebola outbreak.

Since Aug. 1, 94,000 people were vaccinated against the Ebola virus, and of that group only 15 were infected with Ebola (after the 10-day period needed for full protection). All 15 survived their encounter with the virus, which typically has a high mortality rate.

Although it is still unlikely that the vaccine alone will stop this outbreak, it may help protect the front-line responders and healthcare professionals that are at the highest risk of infection.