According to catastrophe risk management firm RMS, the current Ebola outbreak is the largest in history and a serious concern for the West African region due to a confluence of circumstances.
These circumstances include the pathogen’s virulence and transmissibility as well as societal and environmental factors. Despite this, it is unlikely to spread beyond the region and become a global pandemic.
“Any emerging disease, especially one that is highly transmissible, poses a great risk and has the most potential to become a global pandemic because there are no vaccines or treatments available,” said Mary Chang, medical research analyst and pandemic expert at RMS.
“The current strain of Ebola is quite deadly but not particularly transmissible in comparison to other infectious diseases. Societal and environmental factors in West Africa have created unique circumstances for the disease to spread quickly, but infection-control measures and medical practices outside of the region make it unlikely to pose a global pandemic threat.”
RMS experts have identified contributing factors to the spread of Ebola in West Africa, as well as reasons a global pandemic is unlikely. One key factor is virulence: the current Ebola outbreak causes death in 55 percent of those infected.
Transmissibility is another key factor: it is unusual for a disease to be both highly virulent and highly transmissible, as typically such diseases kill those infected before there is time to transmit the infection to someone else. Ebola has a relatively low transmissibility rate than other infectious diseases as it is only transmitted via direct contact with bodily fluids.
RMS experts also note that lack of access to medical treatment and infection-control measures in areas currently affected has contributed to the disease’s spread. However, the risk of a global pandemic is low due to standard public health and infection control practices in place in many countries globally.
Infection-control measures are another reason a global pandemic is unlikely: Ebola can only be transmitted via direct contact with bodily fluids, especially blood, which means that caregivers are the primary people who might be exposed to the virus. In many countries including the US, the general practice is to treat all blood as potential sources of infection, due to HIV and other blood-borne diseases. In quarantine situations, such as those being used with the American Ebola cases in Atlanta, the likelihood of transmission from a single person is miniscule.
RMS, Africa, Mary Chang