African scientists take the lead on Ebola research.

Author:Nevin, Tom

A multinational group of African scientists is heading the search for the source of Ebola outbreaks, as the virus continues to ravage communities in West Africa. The team, based in Johannesburg, is working against time to find ways to control and overcome the disease. Tom Nevin has the details.

A special team of African scientists in Johannesburg is playing a vanguard role in unmasking the Ebola virus that has been rampant in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. Their work is a precursor of the development of control strategies to combat the virus, one of the world's most dangerous pathogens.

First identified in 1976, the Ebola virus is the cause of a haemorrhagic fever that is lethal for nearly half of the people that it infects. The virus has been isolated from human subjects many times, but never from bats--which are believed to be its natural reservoir--or from any other wildlife species. This is the puzzle that medical scientists must crack in the search for effective vaccination and treatment.

"It is still unknown how the first victim --known medically as the index case--is infected," says Professor Janusz Paweska, head of the Centre for Emerging and Zoonotic Diseases (CEZD) and Special Viral Pathogens Laboratory at South Africa's National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD). "Despite the fact that the Ebola virus was first discovered almost 40 years ago ... the natural transmission cycle of Ebola virus still remains one of the most hunted treasures in modern virology."

Led by Paweska, a team of 11 post doctoral medical researchers and MSc students from Zambia, Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo is notching up valuable gains in understanding the Ebola virus's natural transmission and contributing to research into how future outbreaks can be prevented.

Assembled under the One Health research programme of the Southern African Centre for Surveillance of Infectious Diseases and funded by the Wellcome Trust, the team was recruited from universities and research institutions in central, east and southern Africa, undergoing training at the NICD facilities in Johannesburg. Here they conduct research into the most dangerous pathogens known to science. They undertake regular field trips into "microbiological battlefields", the more recent being to net fruit bat species suspected of hosting the virus responsible for the current Ebola outbreak. The team was the nucleus of a rolling programme that has...

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