An Ebola epidemic is unlikely in SA

2014-10-19 15:00

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We have the technology to diagnose the virus early. Seventeen cases have been ­tested since April and none of these has been positive

There is little to distinguish the National Institute for Communicable Diseases in Sandringham, Joburg, from other laboratories around the country.

Only the biohazard signs and double-plated steel doors mark this seemingly insignificant laboratory as the sole biosafety level 4 facility in South Africa that tests for viruses causing haemorrhagic fever, including Ebola, Lassa, Hanta and Congo.

Then there are the stringent safety measures.

Only the scientists are allowed through the steel doors to the maximum security and safety facility used for the handling and storage of the viruses.

And they cannot enter without donning protective suits that are connected to an external breathing air supply.

The scientists are also decontaminated with a chemical shower when they exit the laboratory.

All precautions are taken when dealing with these lethal viruses.

But while ordinary South Africans – buffeted by daily reports of a mushrooming Ebola epidemic and doomsday scenarios for its spread across the world – don’t have access to such hi-tech equipment, Dr Jacqueline Weyer, a medical scientist at the laboratory, is insistent there is no need to panic.

She says speculation that Ebola – which has so far killed 4?500 people – will mutate and become airborne, which would cause it to spread much faster, is unlikely.

“There’s quite a lot that needs to happen before the virus mutates into an airborne disease. The virus would have to have more of a propensity to infect the upper respiratory system, which it doesn’t,” she says.

“The upper respiratory area is not the main part the virus will attack. The virus starts by attacking the cells and starts multiplying.

“During this time it’s flying below the radar of the immune system and it replicates to astounding levels.”

Weyer says instead of the virus mutating were it to become airborne, it would more likely weaken because it is more accustomed to replication in the human body.

“The scares of it becoming airborne are outweighed by the science,” she adds.

Weyer and her team work all hours to ensure tests can be done as soon as possible when doctors have a patient they suspect of being infected.

Any case that is referred to the laboratory is prioritised and the scientists work closely with the doctors.

“We don’t rely on a single test. We do a body of tests to ensure that we are 100% sure that we know what’s happening.

“When the test comes back negative, we discuss other possible causes with the doctor,” says Weyer.

The lab has tested 17 cases since April this year. None of these has been positive for Ebola.

But their colleagues based in Sierra Leone – in a mobile field laboratory – have hundreds of positive cases.

Weyer says an epidemic is very unlikely in South Africa. She says we would be able to contain the virus because we have the technology to diagnose it very early.

When the virus gets exported outside an area where there is local transmission, says Weyer, it usually attacks the nurses and medical staff first.

This means it can be contained in a specific area.

“It tends to be in the hospital setting, that’s nurses and hospital staff.

“For example, a Nigerian patient set off an outbreak of 20 healthcare workers.

“That is the way haemorrhagic fevers work,” she says.

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