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Global health advocates gather for the Infectious Disease Research Institute’s Thursday night emerging diseases panel. Credit: Ashley Stewart

The arrival of Ebola in the U.S. should serve as a high-profile reminder of how quickly — and inevitably — infectious disease can spread.

That was one message emerging from the Infectious Disease Research Institute’s Thursday night panel in Seattle on emerging infectious diseases, including the virus responsible for one death in the U.S. and thousands more around the world.

One panelist, Mayo Medical School professor Franklyn Prendergast, recalled an audience member at last year’s event doubting whether Ebola would ever make it to the U.S. “My argument was very simple: If it’s next door, it’s coming over sooner or later. It doesn’t need to buy a plane ticket,” he said.

IDRI, a Seattle-based nonprofit that doubles as a research organization and biotech company, hosted the panel of global health experts as part of its second annual Around the World with IDRI, a platform to discuss infectious diseases that spread around the world with deadly speeds.

Panelists (from left) Bruce Carter, Franklyn Prendergast and Steven Reed answer questions during the Infectious Disease Research Institute’s Thursday night discussion. Photo by Ashley Stewart

U.S. Ebola cases make up only three of the estimated 9,000 occurrences worldwide, more than half of which have resulted in deaths. The World Health Organization on Tuesday estimated cases could reach as many as 10,000 a week by December — 10 times the current rate.

Panelist Bruce Carter said the Ebola outbreak will compel people to consider the impact of infectious diseases before they reach the United States.

“When diseases are occurring only outside of the country, most people don’t think about them,” the former chairman, CEO and President of ZymoGenetics told GeekWire. “Infectious diseases have killed more people than anything else in history. And it’s not just Ebola — we should bear in mind there are 2 million people dying from Tuberculosis each year.”

Global experts point to other infectious diseases as concerns parallel to Ebola — viruses such as the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome CoronaVirus, which has claimed more than 250 lives so far, or chikungunya, a disease carried by mosquitoes that has already infected as many as 250,000 people.

IDRI Founder and President Steven Reed says his company and other global health officials are working to develop a rapid response to address outbreaks of infectious diseases. “For Ebola and other diseases, we need to figure out how to address viruses more rapidly with a combination of technology and implementation,” he said.

Reed says IDRI isn’t developing a vaccine for Ebola – others are already in the running, and the approval process is long.

Several companies are trying to fast-track vaccines to help curb the outbreak in West Africa, but may be too late for the current epidemic. Vaccines have to be evaluated for safety and efficacy, and that can take years. Ebola’s rapid spread exposes a need for global health experts to find a way to expedite this process, Reed said.

After the death of the first U.S. patient diagnosed with Ebola, and the infection of two nurses treating him, uncertainty seems to coalesce around the virus — both for those who worry about their own health and leaders of the nation’s public health system, who on Thursday had to defend their efforts to contain the virus before a Congressional hearing.

“There are still some things we don’t know about the virus,” Prendergast said. “When we don’t know, the best thing we can do is identify what we don’t understand and find out.”

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