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Scientists May Have Finally Found a Way to Stop Ebola

Mother Jones

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Scientists have developed a vaccine that could successfully prevent the spread of Ebola, according to a study published Thursday in The Lancet. The study was conducted in response to the West African Ebola crisis—the largest and deadliest recorded Ebola outbreak to date—and is the first to report a promising solution for the deadly virus.

Since December 2013, Ebola—a highly infectious virus that causes severe hemorrhagic fevers and has a 50 percent fatality rate—has killed over 11,300 people in West Africa. Considered a global health crisis, the outbreak took nearly two years to control and was complicated by a lack of international funding and widespread fear and mistrust of doctors among African locals. Though the virus was discovered in 1976, early attempts to develop vaccines stalled in the absence of financial incentives for pharmaceutical companies. Until 2014, Ebola outbreaks were rare and controlled relatively quickly.

“While these compelling results come too late for those who lost their lives during West Africa’s Ebola epidemic, they show that when the next Ebola outbreak hits, we will not be defenseless,” said Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, the World Health Organization’s assistant director-general for health systems and innovation, and a lead author of the study, in a press release accompanying the study.

Amid the Ebola crisis, researchers from the WHO and more than a dozen other international partners, tested the new vaccine on 5,937 at-risk individuals in Guinea and found it was 100 percent effective when administered soon after exposure. None of the roughly 3,900 people vaccinated within three weeks of Ebola exposure ended up catching the virus 10 or more days after the vaccination. (Researchers discounted any individuals who got Ebola within 10 days—the typical incubation period for the virus—under the assumption that they had already contracted it prior to vaccination.) The vaccine appears to be less effective the longer the researches waited after an exposure: Of the roughly 2,000 people vaccinated more than three weeks after an exposure, 16 got Ebola.

To find people at risk of getting Ebola, researchers used a unique method, “ring vaccination,” inspired by the strategy used to eradicate smallpox in the 1970s. Each time a new Ebola case was confirmed, researchers traced all the people the patient had come in direct contact with, as well as the people who had come in contact with those people within the previous three weeks. The clusters, or “rings,” were then randomly assigned to either immediate or delayed vaccinations. After noticing positive results in the first few months, the researchers stopped the delayed vaccinations altogether. Eventually, the researchers began vaccinating children, which was also 100 percent effective.

The “ring vaccination” technique additionally had a positive impact on public health: Communities of those who were vaccinated were also less likely to get sick. That proved crucial not only in studying the vaccine, but also in quashing the outbreak itself.

The team still needs to do more research on the safety of the vaccine in children and other vulnerable populations, such as people with HIV. Other questions also remain about how long the protective effects of a single vaccination can last and whether it can be modified to reduce side effects without compromising efficacy.

In the meantime, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, a global health partnership that includes the WHO, gave $5 million to pharmaceutical giant Merck in January to procure the vaccine after its approval. Merck also committed to making 300,000 doses of the vaccine available, should an emergency arise in the interim.

“Ebola left a devastating legacy in our country,” Dr KeÏta Sakoba, coordinator of the Ebola response in Guinea, said in the press release. “We are proud that we have been able to contribute to developing a vaccine that will prevent other nations from enduring what we endured.”

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Scientists May Have Finally Found a Way to Stop Ebola

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This Company Gave Away a Drug That Just Won the Nobel Prize and Helped Millions

Mother Jones

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Earlier today, the Nobel committee awarded its renowned prize for medicine to the discoverers of two anti-parasitic drugs — one that fights malaria and one that treats two lesser-known devastating diseases.

The latter, ivermectin, treats lymphatic filariasis and river blindness, which are parasites that have plagued humans for centuries and currently threaten 1.35 billion people around the world. Developing drugs to treat infectious diseases and making them available to the often-impoverished people who need them is extremely difficult. But because of a breakthrough and an unprecedented move by one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, these diseases might soon be eradicated.

Satoshi Omura Kyodo/AP

Lymphatic filariasis, which can develop into a condition known as elaphantiasis, is a mosquito-transmitted worm that lodges in the lymphatic system, impairing it along with the victim’s immune system and kidneys. In the worst cases, the worm causes extreme swelling and disfigurement of tissue, limbs, and genital parts. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) 40 million people, mostly in African and South Asian countries are incapacitated by the disease, and shunned because of their disfigurement.

Onchocerciasis, or river blindness, is a worm spread through the bite of a blackfly, which breeds in rivers. The parasite produces larvae that move through human tissue, causing sever itching and skin rashes, as well as eye lesions, which can lead to severe visual impairment. An estimated 270,000 people are currently blinded by the disease. The vast majority of people at-risk live in Africa, where it has taken a huge economic toll on rural communities, which have had to move away from rivers to less productive land in order to avoid the disease.

William Campbell Mary Schwalm/AP

In the late 1970s, Satoshi Omura, a scientist at the Kitasato Institute in Tokyo found a component of a soil-dwelling bacteria (that’s right, he literally found it in the dirt) called Streptomyces that was very effective at killing parasites. He then sent cultures of this bacteria to William Campbell in New Jersey who worked for Merck & Co., the fourth largest pharmaceutical company in the world. There, Campbell successfully developed a drug called ivermectin from a compound in the bacteria culture. The discovery was a huge pharmaceutical breakthrough and the drug was determined to be extremely safe for humans and easily distributed.

But, as with many infectious disease drugs, the vast majority of people who needed it lived in the developing world and could not afford it.

What happened next was unprecedented.

In 1987, Merck announced it would partner with the WHO and donate Mectizan, the drug’s brand name, to any country who requested it for as long as they needed it. Before this, no large pharmaceutical company had ever given away a drug they developed to eradicate a disease. At a news conference after Merck’s announcement, the late Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy said, “Merck’s gift to the World Health Organization is more than a medical breakthrough–it is truly a triumph of the human spirit.”

Since 1987, the Mectizan Donation Program has given out more than a billion treatments for onchoceriasis and lymphatic filariasis to people in 33 countries (in the late ’90s GlaxoSmithKline contributed another drug for lymphatic filariasis to the program). As a result, the transmission of onchoceriasis has been stopped in many countries. Last year Ecuador became the second affected country, after Colombia, to entirely eradicate the disease. Lymphatic filariasis cases have dramatically decreased, as well. The WHO forecasts that both diseases could be eliminated by 2020.

Omura and Campbell were awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for their work.

The Nobel committee said ivermectin’s importance was “immeasurable” for the health of many in the world’s poorest regions.

“Treatment is so successful that these diseases are on the verge of eradication, which would be a major feat in the medical history of humankind,” the committee said.


This Company Gave Away a Drug That Just Won the Nobel Prize and Helped Millions

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We Could Save 2 Million Lives Globally by Cleaning Up the Air

Mother Jones

Nations around the world could save more than 2 million lives every year by cleaning up their air, a new study has found. Researchers identified major potential public-health gains not only in the most polluted places like China, but also in the United States and Europe.

If China and India alone met pollution targets set by the World Health Organization, they could avoid about 1.4 million premature deaths annually, according to a study published Tuesday in Environmental Science & Technology. (For comparison, that would be nearly as many lives saved as if we cured everyone in the world who dies from an HIV-related illness every year.)

To do that, these countries would need to meet the WHO’s guidelines for a type of pollutant known as fine particles, which were linked to about 3.2 million premature deaths globally in 2010, the researchers found. Fine particles, which are about 28 times finer than a strand of human hair, enter the lungs and travel into the bloodstream, wreaking havoc on the body: Exposure to the particles—which can come from fires, coal-fired power plants, cars and trucks, and agricultural and industrial emissions—have been linked with increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases, as well as respiratory illnesses and cancers.

Most people around the world live in polluted places where their annual exposure to fine particles far exceeds the WHO’s guideline of 10 micrograms per cubic meter of air, the study says, and in some parts of China and India, people may be exposed to 10 times that amount.

Even in less polluted countries, air pollution has taken a major toll. “We were surprised to find the importance of cleaning air not just in the dirtiest parts of the world—which we expected to find—but also in cleaner environments like the U.S., Canada and Europe,” Julian Marshall, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota and a co-author of the study, said in a statement. Indeed, if these relatively clean regions met WHO guidelines, reducing annual exposure to fine particles by between one and four micrograms per cubic meter of air, they could avoid hundreds of thousands of premature deaths per year, the study found.

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency also has guidelines for fine particle pollution, but they aren’t quite as strict as the WHO guidelines. “If we only meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards, we aren’t fully addressing the problem,” said Marshall.

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We Could Save 2 Million Lives Globally by Cleaning Up the Air

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Here’s What You Need to Know About MERS

Mother Jones

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More than 2,800 people remain under quarantine in South Korea as an outbreak of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) continues to spread. With 95 confirmed cases and nine deaths, this is the second largest outbreak of the mysterious virus—the first was the initial one in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Since then, around 85 percent of cases have occurred in the Middle East, but MERS has been documented in 25 countries, including two cases in the United States last year. Now, health officials in the United States and abroad are preparing for the possibility that the disease could spread even farther. Here’s what we know so far:

What is MERS?
MERS primarily affects the respiratory tract. Typical symptoms include shortness of breath, coughing, and fever (but some have also reported diarrhea, vomiting, and even kidney failure). It is caused by a coronavirus, a family of viruses that generally produce mild symptoms associated with the common cold. The coronavirus behind MERS (MERS-CoV), however, is different from the rest—and far more dangerous. With a 40 percent fatality rate, it has killed about 450 people since it was first discovered in 2012.

Despite the high mortality rate, the virus isn’t highly contagious and is considered less infectious than similar diseases like SARS.

How does it spread?
MERS, which can affect both humans and animals, is believed to have originated from bats, but health officials trace the first human case, in Jordan, to an infected camel. They don’t yet know exactly how that happened, but the World Health Organization has advised against the consumption of raw camel milk and camel urine—yes, camel urine— as a protective measure. While sick camels are considered the primary source of animal-to-human transmission, experts believe that most human cases spread through close contact with infected people, as the majority have been clustered within health care facilities. Symptoms typically appear between five days and two weeks after exposure.

Until more is known—and because MERS symptoms are often initially confused with less serious illnesses—experts have issued the usual recommendations for people living in or traveling to affected areas: Wash your hands, try not to hang around sick people, and don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth without disinfecting first.

Who’s at risk?
The virus hasn’t made an appearance in the United States since last year, when two health workers contracted the disease while traveling to the Saudi Arabia. (Both made full recoveries.) But MERS has continued to spread rapidly since then, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has cautioned that we may see new transported cases in the coming months. While travel restrictions haven’t yet been issued, the WHO encourages extra hygiene measures for anyone going into affected areas, especially when visiting hospitals or places with camels.

The WHO reports that those with already weakened states of health, including anyone with diabetes, renal failure, chronic lung disease, or compromised immune systems, are most at risk for serious complications and death, but in large outbreak areas like South Korea, the virus has affected many people who are otherwise healthy.

What’s being done to stop it?
There is no vaccine or cure for MERS, and the South Korean health care system has faced criticism for overcrowding in hospitals that may have hastened the virus’ spread. But South Korean officials are taking drastic measures to contain both the spread of the disease and the associated fears. 2,000 schools have closed, and government officials are enforcing quarantines for people who might have been exposed even if they don’t have symptoms and are monitoring potentially infected people via their phones.

Meanwhile, a team of WHO experts and public health officers, who have been working in outbreak areas of the Middle East, have deployed to South Korea to learn more about the virus. So far they have confirmed that, despite initial fears that MERS had become more contagious, it hasn’t mutated much from the original strain found in the Middle East.

The WHO is also ramping up its symptom surveillance and reporting, training health officials, and conducting risk assessments to try to stop MERS outbreaks from happening in other areas around the world.

The CDC, which has been preparing since the last time MERS made its way into the United States, has increased lab capacity to detect the virus in those who might come into contact with infected travelers (like flight crews, airport medical service units, and customs agents).

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Here’s What You Need to Know About MERS

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The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope (P.S.)


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The Man Who Planted Trees: Lost Groves, Champion Trees, and an Urgent Plan to Save the Planet


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The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope (P.S.)


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The Man Who Planted Trees


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