Emerging Diseases: From Ebola to Zika

Cheltenham Science Festival Talk

Thursday, 09 June, 2016, 14:00 – 15:00 

Review by Tatiana Sol Verdon

Cheltenham talk

An NDM supported talk at this year’s Cheltenham Science Festival, “Emerging Diseases: From Ebola to Zika” featured prominent epidemiologists and academics from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Centre for Tropical Medicine and Global Health, University of Oxford.

The speakers were: Baron Peter Piot (LSHTM), Professor Laura Rodrigues (LSHTM) and Professor Trudie Lang (Oxford).

Each speaker briefly shared their training and practical work experience in relation to emerging and infectious diseases. Dr Piot spoke of Ebola and HIV, Professor Laura Rodrigues talked about Zika virus and Professor Trudie Lang spoke of the scientific challenges of combating these diseases.

In his introduction, Dr Piot spoke of his early medical training, his co-discovery of the Ebola virus in 1976, and his later work with HIV research in the 1980s. He shared brief stories from the field interspersed with wisdom from his seasoned experience in epidemiology. His resounding message was that an “investment in surveillance to pick up known pathogens and new pathogens must be a commitment that all countries must work together to ensure. The UK has an excellent surveillance system. All countries need to be committed to this. It is a commitment for the G7.”

Professor Laura Rodrigues is an epidemiologist who was directly involved with Zika virus research since last year’s Zika outbreak in Brasil. Using a timeline, her talk plotted through key events that guided scientists, doctors, virologists and epidemiologists who quickly worked together (and they continue to) to answer key questions. She highlighted that it “became very clear that (at the outset of the outbreak) we needed more knowledge – more scientists – to answer these key questions. And now science is providing these answers.” She triumphantly shared that, “to date there are currently 34 candidate Zika vaccines, two of which will be ready for clinical trials in humans this summer.”

Professor Trudie Lang added to the scientific thread by inciting the “need for evidence generation in vulnerable areas of the world,” and that building communities led by local research leaders is essential to tackling these infectious diseases. She spoke of the challenges for raising funds to improve capacity in these environments and that with epidemics, “you just don’t know how much time you have…”

A lively Q&A followed with some excellent audience questions. A few of the questions were: “Should the Rio Olympics still go on? And is it safe for me to attend?” “Was Airport Screening for Ebola a good preventive measure?” “Why did Nurse Pauline Cafferkey have EVD relapses?” and “Given how useless the WHO was with Ebola, should it continue to exist?” and most poignantly: “Will these diseases return?”

The panel members took turns to answer each question with care. The last question hung in the audience heavily, and Dr Piot answered, “A disease like the Spanish Flu will happen again one day. One day we will have a completely new antigenic virus for which we will have no immunity to. More investment in surveillance worldwide is essential.”