Yellow fever is an age-old disease that has plagued Africa, Latin America, and, sporadically, portions of Asia for centuries. A recent outbreak of yellow fever erupted in Luanda, Angola in late 2015. It is estimated that since the outbreak began, there have been over 1700 cases and 238 deaths from the disease, though many organizations believe these could be underestimated numbers due to poor reporting. While the global response was quick and yellow fever vaccine was immediately deployed in the area, this outbreak has exposed our true weakness against this disease: our meager vaccine production capabilities.
Yellow fever is a disease cause by a virus of the family Flaviviridae, the same family that plays host to Dengue virus, West Nile virus, and the latest superstar, Zika virus. The yellow fever virus is spread between humans through a mosquito vector. Disease spread occurs through three different transmission cycles: the jungle, or sylvatic, cycle, typically spreads disease from a nonhuman primate to other nonhuman primates, with the occasional cross to humans; the urban cycle typically spreads disease from human to human; and the intermediate, or savannah, cycle can involve transmission from both nonhuman primates and humans to other nonhuman primates and humans. Each transmission cycle uses its own mosquito vectors, with Aedes aegypti, also known as the yellow fever mosquito, being responsible for the urban cycle that typically lead to the most severe outbreaks. Once a mosquito takes a blood meal from a human infected with the virus, the virus begins replicating and infecting the cells of the mosquito. Once the infection spreads to the mosquito’s salivary glands, the virus can be passed on to a new human.
Yellow fever virus often leads to mild, or no, disease in humans. Patients may experience fevers, aches, chills, and other flu-like symptoms. However, about 15% of cases can lead to severe disease and bleeding, shock, and organ failure; roughly half of these cases are fatal. We have no cure for yellow fever, so our best defense is a good offense. The yellow fever vaccine is known to be highly efficacious, typically providing lifelong immunity after just one dose. However, there are major problems with yellow fever vaccine production which have led to our current defensive stance against the virus.
The yellow fever vaccine is produced using a very old-fashioned and low-tech procedure introduced 80 years ago that involves passing the virus through chicken embryos to produce attenuated, less-virulent virions. This process can only be done in four facilities throughout the world, two government-run plants in Russia, the vaccine company Sanofi Pasteur’s plant, and the Pasteur Institute. Between these four facilities, it is estimated that 75 million doses of vaccine can be made each year. In the past, this has been enough to deal with the vaccination of children in many areas, but has not been able to cover the catch-up vaccinations of adults who were not vaccinated as children. Since the outbreak in Luanda, nearly 6 million people in that city alone have been vaccinated, but the disease has continued to spread throughout the rest of Angola, depleting the global emergency stockpile of vaccine. With the vaccine in high demand, a United Nations report estimated that they would need 42% more vaccine than was available in the next 3 years. Unfortunately, vaccine production is expected to decline rather than increase in the near future as one of the four plants will be closing for a 5-month renovation.
Many experts worry that the worst case scenario, a spread of yellow fever to Asia, where the disease has not been able to gain a solid foothold in the past, would be catastrophic. With vaccine stores already depleted, we would have no defense against such a spread. There are currently no signs of this being a threat, so we still have time to gain the upper hand. If we can remain on the offensive against this disease and find ways to streamline and increase vaccine production, this global threat could one day become a thing of the past. But such an achievement would require a renewed research effort into yellow fever vaccine production, and increased funding for this endeavor. In a tight funding climate, this can be a difficult feat to achieve, but such an achievement is essential for ensuring the protection of future generations from outbreaks like the one currently happening in Angola.