Role of healthcare workers in early epidemic spread of Ebola: policy implications of prophylactic compared to reactive vaccination policy in outbreak prevention and control

BMC Med. 2015 Oct 19:13:271. doi: 10.1186/s12916-015-0477-2.


Ebola causes severe illness in humans and has epidemic potential. How to deploy vaccines most effectively is a central policy question since different strategies have implications for ideal vaccine profile. More than one vaccine may be needed. A vaccine optimised for prophylactic vaccination in high-risk areas but when the virus is not actively circulating should be safe, well tolerated, and provide long-lasting protection; a two- or three-dose strategy would be realistic. Conversely, a reactive vaccine deployed in an outbreak context for ring-vaccination strategies should have rapid onset of protection with one dose, but longevity of protection is less important. In initial cases, before an outbreak is recognised, healthcare workers (HCWs) are at particular risk of acquiring and transmitting infection, thus potentially augmenting early epidemics. We hypothesise that many early outbreak cases could be averted, or epidemics aborted, by prophylactic vaccination of HCWs. This paper explores the potential impact of prophylactic versus reactive vaccination strategies of HCWs in preventing early epidemic transmissions. To do this, we use the limited data available from Ebola epidemics (current and historic) to reconstruct transmission trees and illustrate the theoretical impact of these vaccination strategies. Our data suggest a substantial potential benefit of prophylactic versus reactive vaccination of HCWs in preventing early transmissions. We estimate that prophylactic vaccination with a coverage >99% and theoretical 100% efficacy could avert nearly two-thirds of cases studied; 75% coverage would still confer clear benefit (40% cases averted), but reactive vaccination would be of less value in the early epidemic. A prophylactic vaccination campaign for front-line HCWs is not a trivial undertaking; whether to prioritise long-lasting vaccines and provide prophylaxis to HCWs is a live policy question. Prophylactic vaccination is likely to have a greater impact on the mitigation of future epidemics than reactive strategies and, in some cases, might prevent them. However, in a confirmed outbreak, reactive vaccination would be an essential humanitarian priority. The value of HCW Ebola vaccination is often only seen in terms of personal protection of the HCW workforce. A prophylactic vaccination strategy is likely to bring substantial additional benefit by preventing early transmission and might abort some epidemics. This has implications both for policy and for the optimum product profile for vaccines currently in development.

Publication types

  • Letter
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Africa, Western / epidemiology
  • Disease Outbreaks / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Disease Outbreaks / prevention & control
  • Ebola Vaccines
  • Epidemics / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Epidemics / prevention & control*
  • Health Personnel*
  • Health Policy
  • Hemorrhagic Fever, Ebola / epidemiology
  • Hemorrhagic Fever, Ebola / prevention & control*
  • Hemorrhagic Fever, Ebola / transmission
  • Humans
  • Longevity
  • Vaccination*


  • Ebola Vaccines