Image: the ebola virus/Wikimedia
Ebola, which may well be the most terrifying virus on the planet, has killed 59 people in Guinea in a month in the first outbreak of the virus seen in West Africa. There are 80 confirmed cases so far and officials are concerned the virus has spread to neighboring countries Sierra Leone and Liberia, as a 14-year-old Sierra Leone boy who attended the funeral for one of the earlier victims is now showing signs of infection. One of those infected in Guinea traveled briefly to Liberia, but no known case of Ebola has been reported in Liberia, yet. As fun as the terror of infectious diseases is in books like The Hot Zone and the movie Outbreak, this is not a time to panic. At least, not yet.
While the highly contagious virus, which is really five unique strains, isn’t airborne (so it could be worse), it still kills up to 90 percent of those who contract it in about 10 days time by making them bleed out in hemorrhagic fever. The virus has these little proteins on it that basically shred your blood vessels and cause internal bleeding, which then leads to all your orifices including your eyes, ears, and nose bleeding too, along with your genitals and anus. In the first three days, those infected with Ebola show symptoms identical to influenza, including fatigue, vomiting, diarrhea, and rashes.
The virus is transmitted through blood and bodily fluids, including saliva and sweat, explaining why whole families will contract the virus. So if someone has Ebola, you do not want to kiss them or shake their hand. One man in Uganda became infected in 2012 after stealing another Ebola-stricken man’s cellphone. As scary as the virus is, Ebola kills its hosts at such a high rate it is the virus’ own undoing: people become too sick too quickly to pass it along in the general population. So in other words, Ebola is too powerful for its own good.
Since being discovered in 1976, Ebola has reportedly killed 1,614 people to date in Africa, mostly in central African nations like the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire (932 fatalities), Uganda (292), Sudan (180), and Gabon (150). There have been isolated instances of animals or people getting Ebola in Europe, Asia, or the United States, but so far people beyond Africa that accidentally contracted the virus recovered. Except for Russia, which lost two scientists, including one in 2004, due to laboratory accidents. The origin of the virus is unclear, though most scientists believe it came from fruit bats.
Treatment of Ebola patients involves extensive medical care, including replenishing fluids due to dehydration and administering medicine to manage hemorrhaging, which could explain the high mortality rate seen in Africa (and those two instances in Russia). Medical care in Europe and the United States is significantly better than what is available in Africa. The infant mortality rate in Uganda is 10 times the United States, for example.
Thankfully, medical help for Guinea is on the way. Doctors Without Borders recently mobilized a 24-person team, along with 30 tons of medical supplies from France and Belgium, with more doctors en route to help set up isolation units to contain the spread of the virus. World Health Organization officials are scheduled to arrive in Guinea today as well.
There is no cure or vaccine for Ebola but scientists in 2012 did develop an antibody for monkeys, and in 2013 further perfected it. The drug is really a cocktail of three separate mouse antibodies and when combined with a fourth, described by Scientific American as “a protein prepped with viral material that helps trigger the immune system,” increased the survival rate of monkeys exponentially.
Specifically, Ebola infects the host by fusing with two proteins created by genes in the body, known as the NPC1 and TSG101. Essentially, Ebola sneaks inside these small cell proteins in order to gain entry to the body’s immune system and subvert it. These two proteins are also essential to the HIV virus spreading, which also wreaks havoc on the body’s immune system. Interestingly enough, 10 percent of the European population (and a small percentage of Americans) have a resistance to the HIV virus, either because they survived the Bubonic Plague known as the Black Death or the many plagues of smallpox. Perhaps a cure for Ebola lies within that link?