An Ebola virus virion

Nuclear agency helps fight Ebola

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has dispatched nuclear technology-based diagnostic machines to Sierra Leone to help fight the deadly outbreak of Ebola.

The technology uses a method known as Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR), which allows medical professionals to detect the lethal virus in hours. Conventional diagnostic methods require the virus to be cultivated in a cell culture for several days. Such a delay may, however, completely eliminate the survival chances of the infected person as treatment is more efficient in early stages.

The IAEA helped enhance the technique, originally used to detect radioactive isotopes as markers in samples, to be able to use fluorescent markers instead.

"Transfer of nuclear-related technologies is a key part of the Agency's work, and we have cooperated with Member States for years to develop and strengthen their capacity to use this nuclear-derived technology," IAEA director general Yukiya Amano said. "With this additional support, the Agency makes a small but effective contribution to global efforts to fight the ongoing Ebola outbreak."

The first batch of equipment has been sent to Sierra Leone on Monday including the RT-PCR machine, cooling systems, biosecurity equipment, diagnostic kits and other materials. The agency is already in talks with other Ebola-stricken West African countries, including Liberia and Guinea, to provide similar assistance.

Early diagnosis may not only save lives but also limit further spread of the highly contagious disease, which has killed almost 5,000 people in West Africa since the outbreak was detected in March this year

Health authorities in Sierra Leone and other affected countries are already applying RT-PCR, but their diagnostic capability is limited; there is a shortage of the diagnostic kits and other materials needed for the process and backup equipment is needed to avoid diagnostic downtime in case of equipment failure.

The IAEA is cooperating with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response.

The agency, as part of its ongoing work, has helped 32 African countries and several other Member States to develop skills and acquire equipment they need to use RT-PCR for diagnosis of animal diseases and zoonotic diseases that can be transferred from animals to humans.

In the 1990s the method was instrumental in the global eradication of rinderpest, a deadly viral infection that destroyed livestock around the world.

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