Fred Bridgland: What deadly virus will strike next?

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The Ebola virus which swept through three West African countries last year and in the first half of 2015 is terrifying. It has a high fatality rate, and the way people die is brutal – from internal and external bleeding, high fevers, vomiting, diarrhoea and organ failure.

More than 11,000 people, including more than 500 doctors, nurses and village healthcare workers, died after being infected by the virus in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

For the time being, the disease is under control in West Africa. But no one can be sure what is coming next. “Viruses are unpredictable,” says Dr Ron Fouchier, a virologist at Rotterdam’s Erasmus Medical Centre who has been named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. “There will always be new ones that come when they’re least expected.”

No doubt you are suffering from Ebola news fatigue after all the traumatic coverage that has been given to the fight against the disease. But imagine what it is like for all the millions of Liberians, Guineans and Sierra Leonians, most of them dirt-poor, who have had to live alongside this invisible killer and who fear that it might erupt again at any time. I have seen Ebola described as a shark lurking, ready to attack, in the molecules of human blood systems.

Even when researchers do find new viruses, it is difficult to say which of them might pose a major threat. Few people, for example, would have anticipated that HIV/Aids, the world’s largest pandemic of our time, killing one thousand people a day in South Africa alone, would be caused by a virus that had not previously been associated with major infectious disease.

What might come next and what needs to be done are among the many questions that will be tackled by three of Scotland’s top international aid experts at an Ebola Effect Conversation from 6 to 7.30pm at St John’s Church, Princes Street, tomorrow as part of the Just Festival. Come and listen to Simon O’Connell, executive director of Mercy Corps’ Edinburgh-based European headquarters; Dennis Kerr, an Edinburgh-based registered nurse who is on the board of Médecins Sans Frontières and who spent time in Liberia at the peak of the epidemic; and Jamie Livingstone, head of Oxfam in Scotland.

Fred Bridgland is a journalist and author. He will be chairing the Ebola Effect Conversation