Today my manager and I were discussing the current hot topic of Ebola when one of our regulars walked up to get her coffee and overheard.
“Oh Ebola? Are you worried about that?” She asked skeptically.
Knowing this woman worked for a health sciences college I was more than a little surprise that she didnt seem to be worried at all. But like many individuals I can only assume that she fell prey to the “cry wolf” trap of media coverage. The more the media babbles about something, the less we really listen.
I have noticed spikes in worry over Ebola, especially when the doctor was transported back to the US for treatment. But the consensus mostly seems to be that Ebola is really only in Africa, and thus, not our problem.
The trouble arises in the lack of understanding that if we wait for it to become our problem it could already be too late.
The reasons for getting worked up about Ebola are numerous; I have been keeping a weary eye on it since I first learned about it around 8 years ago. I watched the movie ‘Outbreak’ and was immediately intrigued, then wrote a 20 page report on the bug for my ninth grade science teacher. Though ‘Outbreak’ is a fictional tale, the startling truth is that its not out of the realm of possibility.
Ebola is an incredibly versatile disease with many different strains. In fact a new strain, Bundibugyo, was just discovered a few years ago. Each strain has different abilities and mortality rates. When it first struck in 1976, the Zaire strain had a shocking death rate of 90% while less deadly strains like Sudan were at about 50%. For comparison, Smallpox only has a death rate of about 30%.
The current outbreak is hovering at the 55% mortality rate, and apparently the verdict is still out on the strain. For some time it was being called the Zaire strain, but there are now conflicting reports and it could be a new strain altogether.
There are currently five known types of Ebola; Zaire, Sudan, Bundibugyo, Ivory Coast, and Reston. Each are named after the place they were discovered, including our very own Reston Virginia Ebola. Reston Ebola is the only one apparently not transmittable to humans*, while Ivory Coast (typically found in chimps) has only jumped to humans in one case, and the scientist lived to tell the tale.
(*Pigs are capable of getting Reston and a pig farmer caught what may have been Reston from a pig, indicating the transmission may be possible.)
These various forms and constant new strains of Ebola show that its an unpredictable virus. Currently the CDC/media/ect has gone blue in the face telling people Ebola is only transmittable through direct contact of bodily fluids. However in labs Ebola has been successfully transmitted through minuscule water droplets in the air. It is considered a Category A Bioterrorism Threat, and the WHO classifies it as a Level 4 bio safety containment pathogen, the highest level possible.
In fact the only reason Ebola hasn’t caused the apocalypse yet may be in part due to its lethality. It is hard to spread, and patients get too sick too fast and cant physically move to spread it further.
Rumor has it* that during the Cold War, Soviet scientists were working to engineer a chimera virus by splicing together Ebola and Smallpox. The result would have Ebola’s gruesome lethality and Smallpoxes hardy transmit ability to create a “blackpox” or hemmorhagic smallpox. It was likely the Soviets would have realized unleashing such a perfect killing machine would only come back to bite them in the end, so developing a cure alongside it would be a must. However the Soviet Union fell and the labs were ransacked before anything came of it. If the virus was created, it could be anywhere now. If nothing else Ebola alone was certainly in that lab. One can only hope it doesnt fall into the wrong hands.
(*As recalled by former USSR scientist Ken Alibek)
The odds of a wide-scale Ebola pandemic, at least from the current strain, are unlikely. But a mutation of the strain into an airborne pathogen could mean an unstoppable virus. There are also upsettingly few ways to protect oneself against such a scenario short of locking yourself in a remote cabin. But the worst thing we can do is ignore or downplay this looming threat.