Per the request of at least two of my friends, I have decided to write a weekly topical essay in the hopes it will educate and entertain you, or at the very least make your Mondays a little less sucky. Of course, after reading this installment you’ll undoubtedly appreciate that even your worst Monday is nowhere near as bad as the past months have been for residents of western Africa. (If you want the tl;dr version you can check out this brief clip to learn a little about what’s going on over there that has given me so much to talk about: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGyFhwdtCMk. This guy discusses today’s subject matter much more succinctly and with more hand motions than I.)
Unfortunately, many countries in Africa don’t have the same comforts as us as they’re often plagued with the problem of not being America. Specifically I’m referring to the many issues that arise in a less developed country that is just beginning to become more global by adopting a somewhat more Western feel through new technologies and transportation without having the same, uh, shall we say funds? Basically, the people are fucking poor and desperate enough to literally break their back for a day’s wages in many places like Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, i.e. they don’t do sick days or else they might not have enough to eat. Still, residents scrape by and endure health hardships constantly. So why was it such a big deal when a little boy got sick in December? The answer is one the scariest five-letter words: Ebola – which is somewhere between “shart” and “bingo”, both of which are scariest to hear in a church basement filled with old ladies.
In countries affected by the current Ebola outbreak, easily the worst in history, problems stem from less developed and understaffed hospitals, as well as the greater access to roads which make traveling longer distances quicker much easier. Nevertheless, in the fight against Ebola ignorance is the biggest enemy. The countries stricken by the current outbreak have never encountered Ebola until now, so those who contract the disease don’t realize what they have and inadvertently spread it around their communities. Furthermore, the doctors and nurses who treated the first patients who came to the hospital were just as unaware of what was on their hands – sometimes literally; we’re not yet to the gruesome details.
Named after the river near where the first identified cases occurred in the mid-70s, Ebola is a virus (specifically a filovirus) that is classified as a Level 4 pathogen, which is the highest level a pathogen can be classified as. It’s the World Health Organization’s (WHO) way of saying, “Seriously, don’t fuck with this!” It has an incredibly short incubation period and can start working its black magic in just a couple of days after infection. Those who work around Ebola have to put on spacesuits, and yes, that’s actually what they’re called because they are airtight so that the person inside the suit is within their own personal sterile environment. I don’t know that you’d actually want to wear one in the cold vacuum of outer space, but hey, if Star-Lord can go fly around the universe with his hands exposed maybe the Ebola suit is better than nothing, but I digress.
There are five known species of the virus, four of which affect humans (we’ll talk about the other one later). The one that really worries people is Zaire ebolavirus aka Zebov which is the baddest mamajama in the Ebola fam and the one that’s wreaking havoc right now in the aforementioned countries. If you get infected with the virus you’ll develop Ebola Virus Disease which they used to call Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever as patients will develop a fever that can be followed by hemorrhaging. Unfortunately the only prescription for this fever is not more cowbell as there’s not really a prescription at all. There is no cure for Ebola (yet – fingers crossed on recent research) and that’s a major reason why it’s on Level 4. (Side note: people who study Level 4 pathogens don’t have to get any vaccinations prior to going into the labs, called hot zones, because there’s no cures yet for Level 4 pathogens, so if you get infected you’re simply screwed!) So if you get infected today you’re going to want to pray to whatever god you have stock in and maybe a few others, and take some reading material for the isolation chamber they’ll throw you in (they call it the submarine!) cause you’re gonna be there a while as the fever runs it’s brutal course of pains all over usually accompanied by diarrhea and vomiting (which is black btw). Of course, things go quicker once you start hemorrhaging, in which case you’ll bleed out of holes you didn’t know you had much faster than you thought your heart could pump blood. Oh, and you die when that happens. Not bad work for a collection of proteins that aren’t even technically alive.
Zaire ebolavirus kills 83% of its victims on average, and in one outbreak killed over 90%. Currently it’s claimed a little more than over half the infected people in west Africa, so while it has infected more people the death rate has gone down. Small victories are still victories, I guess; always look on the bright side.
Despite it’s extremely infectious capabilities, Ebola operates so quickly that it usually kills it’s unlucky host before it can move on to the next unlucky guy or gal. Sometimes it only takes a few agonizing days. But since this outbreak began near the border of a few countries that all have easier means to travel than they did a few years ago, and since people don’t always come down with symptoms right away, Ebola has managed to hitch a ride for a lot farther than it normally would get to. One guy actually got on a plane and flew into Nigeria where he died and infected a now isolated group of people there. Fortunately, Ebola is not airborne (except on Nigerian Flight 271, hey! Too soon?) and can only be transferred by direct contact with bodily fluids. But since so many of the “health wards” where people are being cared for are sealed up shacks there is a high risk that any doctors or nurses can accidentally come in contact – as happened with the two American health workers who were infected.
Those Americans are now back home in secure hospital wings being treated with experimental drugs. They are the first people to be infected with Ebola to be treated for it on American soil, but this isn’t the first time Ebola’s been to America, or even the first time that it’s found its way into a human’s body in the Land of the Free.
In November 1989, when I was but a wee lad, a laboratory monkey house in Reston, Virginia saw a sudden sweep of violent death in a third of their resident crab-eating macaques. When a government medical team was brought in to investigate they were horrified to discover that the virus affecting the monkeys was a relative of Zaire ebolavirus. The lab was locked down and everyone who worked there was thoroughly checked out. A few workers tested positive for the new virus and panic was had on the dance floor. And why not? A new Ebola virus within humans in an American city that lies about 20 miles away from Washington D.C., holy fucking monkeybutts! So why didn’t we all die before we were toddlers? Turns out the new virus, called Reston ebolavirus, was asymptomatic in humans, meaning it didn’t affect us. Phew!
As you may have gathered from the Reston monkey scare, Ebola is a zoonotic disease, meaning it is transferred to humans via animals that are infected with it. Scientists believe the original carriers for Ebola are fruit bats in Africa, but it has since also spread to primates like chimpanzees. The moral of the story is stay away from bats, especially their poop and don’t eat bushmeat.
For as deadly as Ebola is and has been this year, it doesn’t come close to killing as many people as AIDS and malaria which are two of the three most prevalent infectious diseases in the world (the other is tuberculosis). However, these other diseases have much better treatment options – at least in developed nations – and do not degenerate their host nearly as rapidly as Ebola making it one of the most frightening things humanity has ever known. I don’t want HIV/AIDS or malaria either, but there’s something about a virus that kills you too quickly to spread that is more dramatically unsettling. This is also why it’s become a favorite story for the media lately, as it can easily be sensationalized for a quick headline that scares you into absorbing as much CNN, ABC, etc. coverage as possible. Ebola wouldn’t be fun for us to have in America, and the current epidemic is the worst ever and seems to be growing, but Ebola is not going to destroy all human life on Earth, so don’t cough up all your blood just yet.
I know I’ve written a veritable encyclopedia here, but if you want to learn more check out the WHO page: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs103/en/. And if that’s not enough pick up The Hot Zone by Richard Preston. It tells the real-life story of Ebola’s spread through early outbreaks in Africa and the Reston incident, as well as some of its nasty cousins like Marburg virus. The opening chapter is terrifying and the story of Col. Nancy Jaax will make you very attentive when preparing dinner.
Thanks for reading my super long informational essay. Future installments won’t be as long-winded, but this topic seemed to be an important current event worthy of a more lengthy discussion. Let me know if you have any questions! Researching for you guys is more fun and less formal than past homework I’ve had for school. And remember to explore for yourselves too! I also welcome requests for future topics, because I’ll lose direction over time and just start ranting.
Tune in next week to hear about why Shark Week has sucked major balls for the past few years and only seems to be getting worse!
Happy Shark Week anyway,