From March 2014 into early 2016, West Africa experienced the largest outbreak of Ebola in human history—a viral disease that causes hemorrhagic fever in humans.
Throughout the medical calamity and political frenzy that took hold after the epidemic started gaining steam, officials scrambled to understand how the virus was transmitted from person to person. It is now widely agreed upon in the medical community that the deadly disease travels from body to body through fluids—spit, sweat, blood, tears, excrement etc.
But it’s also possible that the lungs could be playing a role in infection as well. Scientists in Italy have recently found the virus replicating in the lungs of a patient recovering from infection. This suggests that those organs could play a larger role in bodily infection than previously thought. The findings were published today in the journal Plos Pathogens. They could help scientists get a better understanding of how the disease develops in the human body and travels between individuals. Any deep knowledge of how the ebola virus works could also help in combating strange infectious diseases likely to pop up in the future.
The Ebola virus (EBOV) is a rare organism that causes hemorrhagic fever in humans and other primates. Some victims experience gruesome symptoms like extreme fever, vomiting, bleeding from the nose or anus, and diarrhea, among others. It’s also deadly. In the West African outbreak, two in five people who contracted the virus died. In all, almost 29,000 people were infected, and over 11,000 died.
During the crisis, doctors around the world observed in lab studies and in evacuated patients that EBOV might cause lung damage—in addition to the other devastation it wreaks on the human body—by replicating itself inside lung tissue. But no direct evidence of this replication was ever found.
Epidemiologist Giuseppe Ippolito and his colleagues at the National Institute for Infectious Diseases "Lazzaro Spallanzani" in Italy followed the life trajectory of the ebola virus in the blood and lungs of an infected healthcare worker evacuated from West Africa and treated in Rome. The patient recovered.
Throughout treatment and recovery, the team of medical researchers eyed viral RNA fragments responsible for EBOV replication in both the lungs and blood of the sick patient. They found that after recovery, the RNA fragments remained in the lungs of the patient five days after it had disappeared from the blood. In the paper, the authors state that “This suggests a major role of the respiratory tissues in the pathogenesis of Ebola virus disease."
As the climate changes, and humans continue to develop land deep into the jungles of the world, more rare infectious diseases like Ebola are likely to pop up, shaken and disturbed from their millennia of sleep deep in the forests. Anything we can learn from ones like Ebola are surely going to help us combat new pathogens in the future.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.