UT researchers: Ebola may be silently making people immune

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A UT professor and a postdoctoral fellow said in a letter published in The Lancet medical journal Tuesday that Ebola could be silently infecting people through contact with bodily fluids without displaying any symptoms and making them immune to the disease.

Steven Bellan, postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics, and integrative biology professor Lauren Meyers hypothesized in their letter that, while the disease may be infecting people silently, it is not enough to be harmful. Furthermore, they reported that it could potentially render anyone affected immune to future infection.

“This is a hypothesis that, if true, could help us improve our projection for what is going to happen in the outbreak,” Meyers said. “It also might help us improve the control effort to help save more lives with the limited resources.”

Other diseases have shown that infection can result in immunity, but research has not confirmed whether this is true for Ebola as well, according to Bellan.

“Immunity is very complicated and varies a lot between different diseases,” Bellan said. “What is known from previous outbreaks is that people do get infected with Ebola without ever getting sick. … What we don’t know is if the immune response will result in protective immunity.”

There have been a total of three confirmed cases in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC reports, since the beginning of the outbreak, which started in West Africa, there have been a total of 8,997 confirmed cases and 4,493 deaths. Bellan said this outbreak is bigger than all previous Ebola outbreaks combined.

“The question is, ‘Why did this one get so big?’” Bellan said. “The hypothesis that most people think is most possible is the fact that it’s spread to more dense populations than it ever has before, in an area that there is a lot more movement between cities.”

Meyers hopes her and Bellan’s published letter will bring light to their hypothesis, which she says can help contain the disease in all regions of the world.

“The reason for the publication is to call the hypothesis to the attention of the public health community and discuss what can be done to test these ideas,” Meyers said. “To determine if silent infection is actually immunizing, we’ll have to do studies on the ground in the midst of an outbreak.”