Five researchers who died of Ebola were memorialized this week when a study they co-authored was published detailing their work to map the disease’s outbreak while also highlighting the risk faced when treating infected patients.
The study, in Science, outlined the work of dozens of researchers from the Harvard and MIT-backed Broad Institute to sequence 99 different Ebola virus genomes. The data show how the virus has spread during a continuing outbreak in Western Africa and how it has rapidly mutated from person to person over the first few weeks of the outbreak. The study’s authors say the findings could be used by other researchers as they scramble to test treatments and vaccines such as Canada’s experimental ZMapp drug.
But the paper closed with a grim reminder of the effects of the disease with the five researchers memorialized in a short note.
“Tragically, five co-authors, who contributed greatly to public health and research efforts in Sierra Leone, contracted EVD in the course of their work and lost their battle with the disease before this manuscript could be published,” the study reads. “We wish to honor their memory.”
The researchers have been identified as Mbalu Fonnie, Alex Moigboi, Alice Kovoma, Mohamed Fullah, and Sheik Humarr Khan, who was the head of the Lassa fever program at the Kenema Government Hospital in Sierra Leone. They are believed to have contracted the disease through their work treating infected patients, not through their research.
Robert F. Garry, a professor in microbiology at Tulane University in New Orleans, co-authored the study and worked with Dr. Khan for a decade.
“He was the world’s expert. He had seen more Lassa fever patients than anybody else and, unfortunately, when he died he had probably seen more Ebola patients than anybody else,” Dr. Garry said, noting Lassa fever is another deadly viral disease. He said Dr. Khan was “scientifically curious” and deeply involved in the treatment of his patients as well as researching and teaching in the field.
“The more unusual, the more difficult the diagnosis, the better it was for him. These kind of diseases were very interesting to him,” Dr. Garry said. “I guess it was just natural for him to gravitate to trying to do something to stop them.”
The data from the paper reveal how the disease spread from the funeral of one woman in Sierra Leone, where 14 people became infected. From there, it has reached across Liberia, Guinea, Nigeria and, as of Friday, Senegal, making it the largest outbreak of Ebola, both in number of cases and geographic reach, in history. The World Health Organization estimates more than 240 health-care workers have contracted the disease while treating patients during this outbreak and more than half of those workers have died.
While research on infectious diseases is done in strictly controlled laboratory environments, treating the diseases on the ground is a much riskier endeavour, said Fiona Smaill, professor and chair of the department of pathology and molecular medicine at McMaster University. It becomes riskier still on the front lines, she added.
“In the developing world where most of the Ebola is currently being seen, being able to have those resources is challenging,” Dr. Smaill said.
“The Ebola outbreak has just reminded us of just how fragile the infrastructure is in many of these places.”