Research Roundup: Vaccines as a tool to cure and protect, and what went right in the DRC Ebola outbreak
In this regular feature on Breakthroughs, we highlight some of the most interesting reads in global health research from the past week.
In response to a 2004 meningitis B epidemic in New Zealand, health clinics across the country offered free vaccinations over the course of two years for any individual under the age of 20. The vaccine, MeNZB, is used primarily to protect against meningitis B, but according to ecological data in Cuba, New Zealand, and Norway, the vaccine also appears to be associated with reduced rates of gonorrhea. To study this further, researchers took retrospective data from 11 health clinics across New Zealand, and compared rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia, analyzing the relationship between vaccination and infection rates. The researchers found that vaccinated individuals were significantly less likely to contract gonorrhea than their unvaccinated counterparts—but vaccine effectiveness rates fell for those co-infected with chlamydia. While this vaccine was only on the market from 2004–2006, these results suggest further study of the vaccine’s potential is warranted, especially as gonorrhea becomes increasingly resistant to first-line drugs.
The path toward the elimination of measles, mumps, and rubella has been stymied by low vaccination rates in certain areas of the world, including in developed countries like Italy, Romania, Germany, and the United States. The surge in incidence and deaths from these diseases in developed areas of the world suggests there are pockets of low-immunized communities that are leaving thousands of neighboring children in danger of contracting these diseases. The debunked belief that vaccines cause autism has also contributed to this decline in immunization rates.
The recent Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) helped the global health community understand the many complex, moving parts to contain an outbreak. While the DRC beat this particular outbreak in a short period of time, the global health community is still worried that this was merely an exception and the international community is still not equipped with the systems needed to deal with a complex, intercontinental pandemic. The outbreak happened in an incredibly remote area of the DRC, which limited the spread of the virus. While the response by the government and the World Health Organization was quick and effective, it is important to consider that outbreaks that occur in or closer to larger towns could pose a much greater threat and complicate the response. Another important factor in managing an outbreak like Ebola is the political health of a nation. Countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia, both heavily impacted by the 2014 outbreak, have been institutionally weakened by recent civil wars, leaving them more susceptible to large-scale and more deadly outbreaks.