Globally we should be proud of our disaster relief efforts. Our willingness to send people, resources and funds to those facing incredibly hard and traumatic circumstances through war, famine and natural disasters. And yes, more can always be done.
Sadly one area that continues to cause unnecessary human suffering and death is the spread of pathogens during these disasters. Often driven by overcrowding of people in relief centres and the breakdown of sanitation infrastructure.
Today, no more is this seen in Yemen. Cholera kills a child every 10 minutes in Yeman, as the country enters its third year of civil war. The cholera outbreak death toll exceeded one million last year and is the worst outbreak in history. The need to tackle this killer in a more effective way is high and it is exciting to hear that the microbiome may play a role in speeding up the activation of vaccine protection to less than 24 hours after administration.
A study published today in the journal Science Translational Medicine showed that altering a relative of the cholera bacteria, 'vibrio cholera', to prevent its ability to produce toxins in the gut, and digesting within a drink like a probiotic transferred immunity within 24 hours. This approach could prevent the spread of disease in disaster zones with far more effective results than traditional vaccines.
However, don't get too excited, the Harvard team do not fully understand why it works. The mechanism of action is unclear and this challenge is sadly not unique to this microbiome study but a broader challenge the entire area faces. Microbes are impacted by other microbes, their metabolites, our gut environment, genetics and lifestyle. There isn't a clear mechanism of action, yet. Further human studies are planned as well as research into making the formulation more appropriate for disaster zones with limited refrigeration capabilities.
“We think this is going to be a very good vaccine, and could induce immunity after a single dose,” the study’s lead investigator Professor Matthew Waldor from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Harvard Medical School.