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June 12, 2015

How prediction can help prevent the next Ebola crisis


The worst of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa has passed, but cases of the deadly disease still persist, making it urgently important for scientists to predict where the disease may next flare up.

At the height of the crisis, the Centers for Disease Control created models using data on infection rates and locations to predict the ultimate toll of the crisis. The CDC’s model forecast that 1.4 million people could catch Ebola within a few short months, making immediate intervention critical.

If these models had not existed during the worst of the outbreak, the total number of deaths would have far surpassed 11,000, according to Director of the Centers for Disease Control Dr. Thomas Frieden.

The predictions stunned public health officials in affected regions and helped galvanize public outreach efforts encouraging better sanitation, such as routine hand washing, and discouraging physical contact and the practice of washing bodies before burial. These measures helped to reduce the spread of infection and gradually slow the progress on the virus.

In remote regions, conspiracy theories and denial about the presence of Ebola persist and sometimes undermine efforts to educate the public about the spread of the disease. New cases of infection persist and health workers in the region continue to fight the disease and seek better methods of prevention.

“We still have a long, hard road to get to zero,” Frieden said.

Warm up questions
  1. What do you know about the Ebola epidemic?
  2. How do you protect yourself from viruses?
Critical thinking questions
  1. How did researchers develop a model to predict how many people could die from Ebola?
  2. How could more sophisticated tracking models help prevent future epidemics?
  3. Knowing the risks of treating someone with Ebola, why would a health worker choose to do so?
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