MISSOULA — As the death toll from an Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa exceeds 700 people, help may come from western Montana.
“We at the moment have no direct involvement with the outbreak,” said Dr. Heinz Feldmann of the Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton. “But we have been working on Ebola for many years. My group largely works on animal models for understanding of the disease development and counter-measures, as well as antiviral drugs and vaccines.”
Feldmann’s work as chief of the virology laboratory in the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ Hamilton facility has developed an Ebola vaccine that’s shown promise in animal trials.
His colleague, Vincent Munster is setting up virus ecology sites in Mali and Congo, looking for clues about how the disease moves from the jungle to humans.
And Dr. George Risi, an infectious disease specialist on contract with Providence St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, is organizing a team of medical personnel to go to Sierra Leone in August as part of a World Health Organization program.
St. Pat’s intensive care unit nursing director Kate Hurley and infectious disease physician Mahid Bhadelia of Boston are accompanying Risi.
“We’ll be involved in looking at infection control practices, and advising on improvements,” Risi said. “We’ll also be doing some clinical care of people.”
The team is also delivering a large supply of personal protective gear – masks, gloves, gowns – donated by Providence Health International, the corporate parent of St. Patrick Hospital.
Ebola is an extremely infectious disease that kills 60 percent to 90 percent of its victims. Recent research indicates the virus has existed in African bats for possibly thousands of years. Humans may be getting infected by butchering or eating other jungle animals that have been in contact with the bats. The people can then transmit the disease through contact with blood or other bodily fluids.
“Ebola is very dramatic – there’s no question,” Feldmann said. “But not as it’s being described in books and movies. This virus is highly fatal and dangerous, but not that easy to transmit. You can avoid transmission quite easily. Our basic implementation of sanitary hygiene is sufficient to prevent this.”
That’s not the case in many parts of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia where the current outbreak is centered.
Feldmann said several factors help the disease spread. One is the overwhelmed status of local medical facilities, where isolation wards are overcrowded and trained personnel are in short supply.
Another is the traditional way of handling corpses in some areas, which involves lots of contact with the infected body during funerals and grieving. And a third is distrust of outsiders’ motives in the outbreak response.
“What the population sees, with a fatality rate of 70 percent, most patients who go into an isolation ward will not come out alive,” Feldmann said. “That doesn’t build trust in the community. And then there are rumors that white doctors are stealing organs, or giving people Ebola to test vaccines. All this makes this outbreak special.”
A different problem exists on this side of the outbreak. It’s very expensive to move vaccine trials from animal to human tests. Feldmann said most of the African communities affected don’t have the ability to pay for the research, and private pharmaceutical companies have been reluctant to take on what’s a relatively small project.
“Despite all the action and attention with Ebola, it is still a rare disease and there isn’t really a market for a vaccine,” Feldmann said. “The money could be made available, and it will likely come from governmental funding. But there needs to be a will to do it. That’s not necessarily a negative comment. We all struggle with money and funding, and the U.S. government has to decide whether to put money in countermeasures for Ebola, or HIV, or tuberculosis, or influenza – you name it. Maybe this outbreak will move it forward.”