Spotlight: Health 2014

How the CDC is Hacking Ebola

"Disease detectives" identify the source of an outbreak and stem its spread, but can they work quickly enough?

Scanning electron micrograph of the Ebola virus growing from a cell. (NIAID / Flickr)

Months before news of the devastating Ebola outbreak made headlines in the United States, Tom Frieden was already talking about the dangers of the disease. If you weren’t familiar with Frieden’s name before this month, you almost certainly are now. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) director has been all over the news recently, reassuring media, politicians, and Twitter followers that the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa can be contained – eventually.

“We know how to control Ebola,” insisted Frieden in a recent blog post for The Huffington Post. “We have a difficult road ahead, which will take many months, but we must redouble our efforts to bring this terrible outbreak under control.

In a session at Spotlight: Health in June, Frieden described how the CDC works to corral highly infectious diseases, employing a large number of highly-trained “disease detectives,” who focus on identifying the source and eradicating new infections once an outbreak occurs. Historically, the process has been successful, said Frieden, citing a case of rabies spread by an organ donor, a disease related to smallpox, and an Ebola-like virus spread by bats. He was joined on stage by CDC epidemiologists Neil Vora and Jennifer McQuiston, who explained that eradication can sometimes take weeks or even months due to the constant discovery of new diseases.

“One of the reasons we do humanitarian efforts where we send staff to investigate Ebola outbreaks is that there’s still a lot to learn about it,” explained McQuiston, in response to an audience question about what they know about the threat of Ebola. “Itf we’re going to be prepared [in the United States]… we need to know as much as we can.”

Now, the CDC has to apply what they know. Frieden has pledged to send at least 50 new CDC officials to West Africa to help quell the virus, but some believe that that’s not enough. As the number of infected people grows in the coming weeks, the CDC and its international equivalents will have to respond as quickly as possible, a tactic that McQuiston stressed at Spotlight: Health. “[The] ability to mobilize rapidly is… not common enough around the world,” she said. “One of the things we’re doing… is helping other countries develop both this kind of disease detective program and the emergency operation capacity because if they can find a problem sooner and stop it, it’s better for them and it’s better for us.”

So far, over one thousand people have died from the outbreak, and fear that the virus will travel to American soil persists. But Frieden remains confident that if the disease does cross the ocean, rapid domestic spread won’t happen: “This is a disease that has been hard to stop in Africa, but if it were to show up here, we can stop [it] in the United States.”