Aug 19, 2019 | Updated: 12:01 PM EDT

New Study Says Travelers May Bring Ebola, But What About the Air?

Oct 21, 2014 05:17 PM EDT

Health worker in Freetown, Sierra Leone sprays disinfectant around Ebola infected reside before loading him into an ambulance.
(Photo : CNN) Health worker in Freetown, Sierra Leone sprays disinfectant around Ebola infected reside before loading him into an ambulance.

While surveillance on a global scale tightens, looking for the looming threat of Ebola symptoms from international travelers around the world, researchers worldwide are evaluating the all too real threat of the spreading viral infection. And they're finding that even a conservative estimate could spell international disaster over the next few months.

A new study led by infectious disease and tropical medicine specialist Dr. Issaac Bagoch from the University of Toronto, created a model for prediction of spreading Ebola, based on scheduled flights in and out of Ebola infected areas, as well as surveillance data from the current epidemic. And what the researchers found is that as many as three Ebola-infected travelers may board international flights out of the hot zone of West Africa each month; potentially spreading the disease to a global pandemic level.

"We understand there could be global risks associated with the current outbreak" Bagoch says. "We wanted to understand what those risks were."

And some nations are at a far greater risk, even at such a low chance of incidence. Though the Ebola virus has already managed to make its way to Spain and the United States, researchers say that the likelihood of infected individuals travelling to the United Kingdom or France is roughly eight times greater than that of those travelling to the US after infected with the disease.

The researchers hope that the calculation of the risk may help nations worldwide better manage efforts towards containment and prevention of the virus' spread. However, even though the research points to the relatively low prevalence of the disease even in West African nations, some individuals fear that the spread of the disease may allow the Ebola virus to mutate far deadlier genomic traits, like developing a far worse mode of transmission.

 "The issue that has been at the forefront of peoples' minds is whether the virus could mutate to become airborne" senior professor of medical microbiology at the University of Westminster, Edward Wright says. "A recent report in the scientific journal Science identified that there have been changes to the virus' genetic code during this outbreak but this is only to be expected due to the nature by which the virus replicates."

While it is not entirely unheard of for viruses to mutate and develop strains resistant to medical intervention, or developing worse symptoms and more lethal traits, mutations in their genome are often not productive in changing anything other than protein shapes. When asked to assess the likelihood of such great changes happening in the near future, Wright and fellow researchers say that much of this conversation may be founded in fears and not in science itself.

"While the rate of mutations has been prolific, this virus has not changed the mechanism by which it is transmitted" Wright says. "In fact, there is no evidence any virus has changed its mode of transmission due to normally occurring mutations in their genomes."

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