Navigating the Aftermath of Epidemics

The symptoms and implications of disease often reach far beyond the individual, carrying consequences for communities, countries, and sometimes the whole world. There are broad social, psychological, economic, and political ramifications when societies are struck by epidemics. Over the past few years, newspaper headlines and Twitter feeds have been filled with stories of Zika, Ebola, and malaria devastating entire communities. We have found ourselves bewildered by the unknown implications of these viruses, confronted with drug resistance, and in need of accessible and affordable diagnostic tools. This year at TEDMED 2017 we will hear from Speakers and Hive Innovators who are facing the challenges of epidemics head-on.

Ebola Survivors Clinic staff

As a rookie physician, Soka Moses helped lead his community through the bleakest days of the Ebola epidemic as Clinical Director of the Ministry of Defense Ebola Treatment Center in Monrovia, Liberia. Soka and his staff treated over 600 patients, risking their own infection and death. After saving hundreds of lives, Soka has now turned his attention to Ebola survivors. According to WHO, Liberia is home to 5,000 survivors, many of whom lost their families to the disease. That is not all that they have lost, as both patients and health care providers who have come in contact with the sick face severe social stigma that isolates them from their communities. Physically, Ebola survivors experience symptoms such as joint pain, dizziness, blurred vision, and the inability to concentrate to such severity that it precludes them from working. The unmet need to care for these patients prompted Soka to take on a new role as Director of the Ebola Survivors Clinic at Redemption Hospital in Monrovia, where he helps survivors reclaim their lives. While there are currently no cases of Ebola infection in Liberia, the effects still linger, and a recent outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo is a reminder that continued prevention, detection, and response efforts are essential to ensure outbreaks do not turn into epidemics. To that end, Liberia and the United States are partnering to perform clinical research studies at Redemption Hospital and other sites across the country in order to ascertain the long-term ramifications of Ebola virus disease.

Like Soka, retina specialist Camila Ventura is working alongside her patients as they discover the still unknown, long-term consequences of a virus. Camila, who comes from a family of ophthalmologists in Recife, Brazil, works with patients and families affected by Congenital Zika Syndrome. Camila found herself on the front lines of the Zika epidemic after reporting ocular findings in babies with the Zika virus. While the number of cases of Zika infection in Brazil, the Caribbean, and the United States are down this year, US cities near the Mexico border—where infection data is limited and the rainy season has begun—are being cautious. One case of the Zika virus, likely spread from a mosquito, was recently reported in Hidalgo County, Texas.

There’s a new understanding of how infants with Congenital Zika Syndrome can present with a broad spectrum of symptoms, including visual impairments. Camila is actively gathering information on the visual impacts of this virus, closely following her infant patients to uncover the mechanisms behind their unique symptoms and the best treatment options for them. Her team partners with families of babies with Congenital Zika Syndrome to navigate the unknown prognosis and long-term consequences of this virus.

Zika can be a challenge to diagnose because there are so few copies of the virus in a patient’s body, which means that it requires a highly sensitive test. This year at TEDMED, we will hear from Omar Abudayyeh of SHERLOCK, who will take the stage during the Audacious session alongside 19 other innovators who are transforming health and medicine. At SHERLOCK, Omar and his colleagues found a new application for CRISPR technology, using it to detect and diagnose biologic material rather than to edit genomes. The team designed a way to detect viruses, bacteria, and cancer at attomolar levels, allowing for highly accurate diagnosis in incredibly small amounts of sample. The result is a simple and inexpensive diagnostic tool that can be rapidly used—vital when time is of the essence.

The Anopheles mosquito, which transmits malaria

While viruses like Ebola and Zika have presented the global health community with new and unexpected challenges in terms of our ability to offer timely diagnosis and treatment, our world has long been familiar with the suffering caused by malaria. Malaria remains a leading cause of death in developing countries, where young children and pregnant women are at greatest risk of infection. Physician and professor Nick White studies this disease from Mahidol University in Bangkok, Thailand. In 1981, Nick and his colleagues happened upon a Chinese scientific journal describing the antimalarial properties of an herb called qinghao. They performed large-scale studies, treating adults and children infected with malaria with derivatives of qinghao, commonly known as artemisinin. Artemisinin combined with a conventional antimalarial, or artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT), quickly proved to significantly decrease malaria morbidity and mortality worldwide. Despite the effectiveness of the treatment, Nick and his team faced significant challenges convincing policy makers to adopt it, but found success after another party published an incendiary article in The Lancet. Now, this successful treatment of malaria faces new challenges, as artemisinin resistance has repeatedly emerged in Southeast Asia. In the past few years, Nick and his team have made advances in exploring the options available to eradicate these resistant strains.

Together, these Speakers and Innovators demonstrate diligence and ingenuity as they bravely tackle the overwhelming challenges surrounding epidemics. Whether by navigating the unknown effects of disease alongside patients or developing new ways to diagnose and treat pathogens, their work inspires hope. We invite you to join us at TEDMED this November to hear them share their remarkable stories.