UW researcher looks at Ebola’s past, present, future

'If we simply put out the fire and move on ... we are going to have Ebola again'

The search for answers about Ebola, just like the virus itself, have gone on for years.

That research revealed much about the virus, but left public health programs short of a way to stop its spread in West Africa. It also failed to prevent cases of the virus turning up in Europe and the United States.

“The reason why we have an epidemic is not really because of lack of vaccines or treatments, although that would surely help. The reason we have an epidemic is because of breakdowns in public health infrastructure,” said Tony Goldberg, associate director for research at University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Global Health Institute.

Goldberg has spent decades studying emerging infectious diseases, including extensive field work in Africa. Cases of Ebola have been reported in Africa in the past, but not to the extent of the epidemic at present.

“I’m not surprised that Ebola has broken out in sub-Saharan Africa,” Goldberg said. “That’s happened before, and I’m not surprised that it hitched a ride on a plane outside of Africa. I guess what I’m surprised about is the fact that despite our knowledge of the virus, this has gotten so out of hand.”

Federal budget cuts in 2010 to funding for research looking for a vaccine for Ebola has also limited health officials in stopping the spread of the virus.

“People’s lives are at stake,” Goldberg said. “We have, in the case of Ebola, candidate vaccines that would be effective if they were approved. The cuts in research funds that we’ve seen in recent years have halted the progress of the research in those vaccines.”

Goldberg believes the next few weeks will be critical in determining the scope of Ebola’s spread in the United States. If there are few if any additional cases diagnosed, the virus may be contained.

Goldberg said the key is what happens then.

“We are in crisis mode, so we’re doing a lot of stomping out of the fire, but that’s not really the acid test,” he said. “The test is going to be (about) follow up. Are we going to make the investment in research and public health infrastructure that we should have made decades ago so that this would never have happened?

“If we simply put out the fire and move on to the next fire, we are going to have Ebola again.”