Ebola Outbreak Now An International ‘Public Health Emergency’

11:44 minutes

an asymmetrical, curly strand
This colored transmission electron micrograph reveals morphological details of an Ebola virus particle. Credit: CDC/Cynthia Goldsmith

The Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has now infected 2,600 people, and claimed more than 1,700 lives. It’s the second biggest outbreak on record. 

It’s also been tough to treat, because health workers have been attacked—and some shot and killed—by violent armed groups in the country. At least one Ebola treatment center now has barricades and snipers to protect those inside. Now, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern.” 

Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American, joins guest host Molly Webster to discuss the Ebola epidemic and other science news stories of the week: climate change and the Candida auris superbug, touch-sensitive robotic arms, solar sails, and a mini shark that glows in the dark

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Segment Guests

Sophie Bushwick

Sophie Bushwick is senior news editor at New Scientist in New York, New York. Previously, she was a senior editor at Popular Science and technology editor at Scientific American.

Segment Transcript

MOLLY WEBSTER: This is Science Friday. I’m Molly Webster. Ira Flatow is away. Later in the hour, the risk of being identified among anonymous– supposedly– data. 

But first, the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has now infected 2,600 people and claimed more than 1,700 lives. It’s the second biggest outbreak on record. It’s also been tough to treat, because health workers have been attacked. 

Some have been shot and killed by armed groups in the country. At least one Ebola treatment center now has barricades and snipers to protect those inside. And this month, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak quote, “a public health emergency of international concern.” 

Here to explain what this means is Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American. Hello, Sophie. 


MOLLY WEBSTER: So tell me, what prompted this latest declaration by the World Health Organization? 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So the reason that they’ve chosen now– so this outbreak has been going on for about a year. And the reason they’re now declaring it of international concern is because there was a case in a border city. So it’s been in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and there’s been at least one case in a city that’s on the border with Rwanda. So that really emphasized the danger of this spreading internationally. And because it’s been a tough outbreak to fight, the idea is making this declaration will encourage other nations to put their resources towards financial resources, but also security forces to protect health workers. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: How often do they make a declaration like this? 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I’m not sure. I think in this case, it’s not a particularly common declaration to be made. But it is fairly common for a disease to be an international problem. We live in a really connected world now, and often, diseases jump borders. 

And you can see this with the spread of less scary diseases in some ways, as well. So for example, measles outbreaks in the US are often caused by an international traveler, and then they can be exacerbated in an unvaccinated community. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: So once you make a declaration like this, what does it mean? Like, what’s– protocol goes into place? 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. It’s sort of like sending up a flare to be like, hey, international community, UN, help us with security forces. Encouraging other countries put some money towards helping us fight this outbreak towards helping pay for vaccines towards support for health workers and that kind of thing. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: Mm-hmm. So the next story you want to talk to us about, still in the, sort of, medical frame of mind. But it’s about an infectious fungus that’s resisting our drugs. 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. So this is a fungus that’s been classified as a superbug. It’s called Candida auris. And the latest news on it, it’s been– we’ve known about it for about 10 years. And the reason it’s kind of scary is because it’s shown an ability to resist every antifungal drug we have. And it often infects people in hospitals who already have compromised immune systems. And when it does infect someone, there’s a 30% to 60% chance that it will kill them. 

So this is a big problem, not having treatments for it. And another odd thing about this one is that normally fungus is can’t really thrive in the human body. And so a new study has suggested that the reason this one has been able to infect humans is because it adapted to global warming. So it got used to higher temperatures, and then used this newfound ability to thrive in those environments to infect humans. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: So it’s like humans have, essentially, been protected by diseases because we’re 98.6, that number we all hear all the time? 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. Specifically from fungal diseases. So the idea is that if this one particular fungus has jumped into being able to infect humans, will other funguses follow, and will those also be as resistant to our antifungal drugs as Candida auris is? So that’s the scary thing about this one. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: It is insane to think that outside temperatures somehow are affecting what’s happening inside our body. 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Absolutely. I think a lot of times when we think about climate change, we think, OK, maybe more extreme weather. We think conflicts over water. But not a lot of people think, oh, fungus is going to evolve. But that’s exactly what this one particular paper has posited is happening, in this case. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: Oh, that’s interesting. So it’s not like this is conclusive, we know this is happening. 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. So far, there’s been one paper. But I think that one of the– because Candida auris is a relatively new microorganism– not relatively new, but where we only became aware of it about 10 years ago. So there’s a lot that’s unknown about it, and I think that a lot of researchers are hoping to spur more study into it. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: And it’s worldwide at this point, did you say? 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes. There’s differences in the strains that have arisen in different areas. So a strain in South Africa might be different from one in Japan, but it has spread to countries all over the world. It’s been found or identified there, yeah. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: Something we’ll keep our eye out for. I know in New York it’s a big thing in hospitals. 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes. It’s a big problem in hospitals, especially because a lot of the people who are in hospitals are there because they’re already sick. Or they’re there, maybe, recovering from surgery, and they’re in a situation where having this infectious fungus around could be very dangerous for them in a way it wouldn’t be for the general population. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: Right, right. OK. So you’ve got another story that’s about a prosthetic hand– a very sensitive prosthetic hand. Do you want to tell us about it? 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes. This one is really cool. Essentially, researchers took an existing robotic prosthetic hand, and they modified it to make it much more touch sensitive. So basically, we think, oh, there’s five senses. You’ve got your sight and your smell, and you’ve got touch. But you can actually break touch down into a lot of other little sensory abilities, like the ability to pick up a vibration, to feel temperature, to feel the texture of a surface. 

And we’re not even aware that we’re taking in all these inputs, but it happens every time you touch something. So researchers had a man who had lost his hand, and they mapped, essentially, the nerves on his forearm that had been connected to his hand to figure out where are all these– when he was getting input on his real hand, how were those signals traveling to his brain? And they used that to map how to connect this hand. And they also did it the other way. So when he’s sending signals to his hand to do things, what does that look like? 

And so they learned– basically, they matched the hand to him. So the signal was coming from his brain to the hand, and then the hand back into his nervous system. And they allowed it to become much more touch sensitive. He was able to– with his eyes blindfolded and his ears covered, he could he could squeeze different objects and tell whether they were hard, whether they were soft. He could do really delicate tasks, like picking up an egg or plucking grapes off of the stem. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: One grape at a time. 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah. It’s really amazing. It’s sort of this science fictional version we think of when we think of prosthetics. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: Well, I also think of prosthetics as something that does something. So if I’m missing a leg, I want to be able to walk. I don’t actually think about it providing feeling or sensation. That feels like a big step here. 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes. One interesting thing they found was that the– so the subject who had this hand, he suffers from phantom pain, which is when someone who’s an amputee– they might feel pain in what feels like the lost limb even though they no longer have it. And when he was wearing the prosthetic, that phantom pain was lessened, because it felt like he was feeling things with an actual one of his appendages, as opposed to with a tool attached to his arm. 


SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. So it’s fascinating, and just– there is this emotional component too, right? And one of the things he was able to do was to shake his wife’s hand and to feel her hand in the prosthetic, but it felt like he had the sensation of holding her hand. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: Of, like, feeling another human again? 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes, exactly. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: Wow. That’s insane. 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: It’s very cool. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: Is it a technology that is ready to be deployed, or is it unique to this one individual? 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So so far, they’ve tested this with, actually, eight subjects. The issue– the real barrier to entry here is just cost. So the researchers were working with an existing prosthetic system called the LUKE arm, and that can be anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000. And then the other issue is, would insurance cover this? Because in many cases– it depends on your insurance, but some insurance companies won’t even cover prosthetics that are much more rudimentary than the one they have here. 

So I think the issue isn’t– I think it’s definitely applicable to other subjects. The question is whether it would be affordable. So I know that the researchers are looking into getting FDA approval, but this question still remains. Like, you can get FDA approval, but I think you’re going to have a limited subset of people who can afford this type of thing. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: So from one sci-fi feeling thing to another, there’s a ship up in space. What’s up in space, floating around our planet at this point? 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: We have a solar sail up in space. So just the way that a boat on the ocean will be propelled by the wind blowing into its sails, the sail in space is literally propelled by sunlight. The photons from the sun hit this big silvery-colored sail, and they propel it with this slight amount of force. So I think they’ve compared it to the force of a fly landing on your hand. That’s the amount of force that’s being exerted on this sail. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: Wait, that’s all they need? 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s all they need. Because you’re up in space there’s no air, so there’s no air resistance. So this little bit of a push is able to propel it the slightest bit. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: And then our last– maybe my favorite story of this week, personally, is about a shark that is very, very small. 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: It is. It’s a pocket shark, or as they’ve call it, Mollisquama mississippiensis. So they actually have found a pocket shark before– that was back in 1979. This is only the second specimen they’ve ever found, and it turns out it’s a different species from the first one. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: And this one glows in the dark? 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: This one glows in the dark. So a pocket shark isn’t actually called that because it can fit in your pocket, although it can, because it’s 5 and 1/2 inches long. It looks a little bit like a teeny-tiny sperm whale, because it’s got this bulbous head. And it has these little pocket structures near its gills. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: It actually has pockets on it? 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes. It doesn’t fit in your pocket, it has the pockets. Yeah. I mean, unless you really wanted to carry a shark in your pocket– in which case I suppose you could, but I don’t think the shark would enjoy it very much. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: And then very quickly, the glowing in the dark is? 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: It has light-producing organs all over its body, and the researchers think that this could be some form of camouflage. So if it’s floating in the water, it could pattern itself to look almost invisible. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: I would like to put the pocket shark in my pocket. That’s funny that the name is– 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: The name is incredibly appropriate, yeah. There’s multiple meanings. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: And they call it that because of all the pockets all over it, not just to distract– 

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So it doesn’t actually have pockets all over it. So its pockets are specifically right by the gills. It has these two structures that are pocket shaped. And those do produce glow-in-the-dark fluid, but it’s glow-in-the-dark ability actually comes from organs on the rest of its body which aren’t pockets. 

MOLLY WEBSTER: OK. This is great. Sophie, thank you so much for coming and sharing all this with us. Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American. Thank you.

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