Ebola: The Scariest Disease on Earth
There is nothing scarier than real life. You can see that in trends in current zombie movies, moving away from the Haitian concept of supernaturally created zombies toward a sense of contagion. Death being something you can catch, or in the case of ‘28 Days Later’ something that can run after and catch you. We fear disease as we fear death and contagion appears the ultimate monster, an unseen enemy, hiding in the shadows.
I first read about Ebola virus as a teenager when I picked up the ‘The Hot Zone’ by Richard Preston. I remember it as an exhilarating fascinating read but with the invincibility of youth as much as I recognised that the book was about reality it still remained somehow a fiction without connection to my real life, rereading it as an adult in research of this article I discovered a real life horror more profound than anything I have ever seen at the movies or picked up in a library.
Ebola is a filovirus. It is one of a family of haemorrhagic fevers that originate in the rain forests and are believed now to be carried by fruit bats. They have a devastating effect on the human body. Some of the symptoms will be familiar to you from movies like ‘Outbreak’ and ‘Contagion’, headaches, reddening of the eyes, some flu like symptoms and then bruising, bleeding from the nose and convulsions but the real symptoms of the disease are far worse than anything those films ever depicted. It would be impossible to describe it better than Richard Preston so the following is a direct quote from ‘The Hot Zone’:
‘The skin bubbles up into a sea of tiny white blisters mixed with red spots known as a maculopapular rash. This rash has been likened to tapioca pudding. Spontaneous rips appear in the skin, and haemorrhagic blood pours from the rips. The red spots grow and merge to become huge, spontaneous bruises, and the skin goes soft and pulpy, and can tear off if it’s touched with any kind of pressure. Your mouth bleeds, and you bleed around your teeth, and you may have haemorrhages from the salivary glands – literally every opening in the body bleeds, no matter how small. The surface of the tongue turns brilliant red and then sloughs off and is swallowed or spat out. It is said to be extraordinarily painful to loose the surface of one’s tongue. The tongue’s skin may be torn off during rushes of black vomit. The back of the throat and the lining of the windpipe may also slough off and the dead tissue slides down the windpipe into the lungs or is coughed up with sputum. Your heart bleeds into itself; the heart muscle softens and haemorrhages into it’s chambers, and blood squeezes out of the heart muscle as it beats, and it floods the chest cavity.’
This is a just a small part of an extended and terrifying description of what the Ebola Virus does to the body. The patient eventually bleeds out, in many cases of Ebola the patient begins to thrash and to fit as they are dying, throwing their infected blood up into the air. It is unclear how much of the brain survives while the patient is dying, it is suggested that only the instinctive, lizard brain remains. Given the ferocity of these symptoms it is unsurprising therefore that the filovirus family kills up to 90% of those that it infects.
‘The Hot Zone’ was first published in 1994 and therefore doesn’t cover the most recent outbreaks and developments in the story of Ebola. There have been outbreaks as recently as 2007 in the Bundibugyo district of Uganda killing 34% of those infected and in the Kasai Occidental Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2007 killing 71% of those infected and again in 2008-2009 killing 47%.
Scientists are working on developing a new vaccine which has proven successful in non-human primates. The original immunisation process took days or even months to complete, so they have been working to reduce this to a single dose. In the meantime there has been a reported case in 2009 of a German scientist being exposed to the virus after being accidentally pricked with a needle that had been used to infect lab mice with the virus. She was administered an experimental vaccine and survived, however it is not known whether she was in fact infected with Ebola so it is impossible to prove the effectiveness of the vaccine.
The most recent suspected cases of Ebola in 2011 have been isolated, this is likely due to changes in medical approaches and better precautions being taken to protect against infectious agents. Ebola in humans infects in much the same way that HIV does, it’s mainly exposure to bodily fluids that spreads the virus. The uncontrollable fitting during death throws may be part of its adaptive process, the infected blood is thrown far and wide in an attempt to seek a new host.
So far there has been no major outbreaks of Ebola, however there is still reason to be cautious. Ebola is a fast mutating virus with five known strains so far. One strain, Ebola ‘Reston‘ would on the surface appear to be the least threatening as it does not produce symptoms in humans, however it proved fatal for 90-100% of the primates exposed to it during its first recorded outbreak in 1989. What may unease you is that this outbreak took place in the United States, in a primate facility in Reston Virginia, however Ebola Reston’s real sting in its tail isn’t just that its extremely similar to the deadliest known strain of Ebola ‘Zaire’ but the fact that it mutated to become airborne.