Academics and Research

Quick Questions: Biology Professor Phillip Danielson on Ebola

Editor’s note: As part of the University of Denver’s focus on serving the public good, faculty members from across the disciplines routinely share their expertise with the community. They answer questions from reporters, host lectures on trending topics and write op-ed columns for local, national and international publications. They also field questions from the University of Denver Magazine via our Quick Questions feature.

Professor Phillip Danielson of the Department of Biological Sciences is an expert in forensic sciences. He helps us better understand the threat of the Ebola virus now killing thousands in Africa.


Question: What are the origins of the Ebola virus?

Answer: Good question. No one really knows where this virus came from originally, nor do we know with certainty what the animal reservoir is that is the source of human outbreaks. In years past, people have searched for it in bats, monkeys and other animals. The best data that we currently have points toward bats as the most likely reservoir of the Ebola strains that infect humans.


Q: How is the virus spread?

A: The virus is actually very fragile and cannot survive outside the body very long. As a result, it is transmitted through direct contact with infected body fluids such as blood or things like needles and medical supplies that are contaminated with human body fluids. In prior Ebola outbreaks in Zaire, it was a clinic’s practice of reusing hypodermic needles that spread the infection to nearly 200 patients.


Q: What makes this current outbreak so frightening?

A: The Ebola strain currently spreading in western Africa is actually not the most deadly strain. It has a mortality rate of about 60 percent. A prior outbreak in Zaire had a mortality rate of about 90 percent.  The scale of the current outbreak, however, is larger than any of the prior outbreaks. In addition, this is the first outbreak that appears to be gaining a foothold in major urban areas, where it will be easier to spread and harder to bring under control. Prior outbreaks have been in more isolated rural areas.


Q: What are the biggest challenges to containing it?

A: The difficulty of containing the current outbreak ties mostly to the lack of an effective therapy/drug regimen and adequate isolation resources in the African health care system. In addition, the spread of the disease to urban areas provided more opportunities for the virus to spread to new hosts. The mobility of urban populations also makes it much harder to know who has and who has not been exposed.


Q: What can people do to protect themselves?

A: The easiest way to avoid an Ebola infection is to practice good hygiene, avoid coming into contact with any fluids from an infected individual — [in other words] practice the same kind of medical isolation procedures that you would with any infectious disease.


Q: Is it safe to travel to Africa, or should people avoid it?

A: It would be prudent to avoid West Africa until the current outbreak is under control.


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