There is little else on this Earth quite as chilling as hearing that there has been an outbreak of the Ebola virus. It brings crashing to mind all of those terrifying movies depicting a world ravaged by a fierce virus for which there is no vaccination, no cure and a meagre chance of survival. Almost two years ago, however, the horror of Hollywood imagination made its real life debut in a handful of countries in West Africa and this appearance by one of the world’s worst viruses known to man has left the local population shattered and terrified.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), we faced the worst outbreak in recorded history and the death toll increased daily. With this shocking realisation in mind come many questions: what is the Ebola virus? How at risk is the rest of the world to contracting this pathogen and what actually happens to the body once it’s infected? Let’s take a look at the microscopic douche bag that effortlessly, in as little as a few short weeks, showed up mankind for our frailty.
Now Might Be the Time to Cancel that Trip to West Africa
Source: World Health Organisation (WHO), Ebola Response Roadmap, February 11th 2015
If you have impending travel plans for Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Guinea and Liberia, now might be the time to reconsider. Your journey of a lifetime might just become your last. At the last count (December 27th 2015) WHO reported that 28,637 people had been officially diagnosed with the Ebola virus in these countries, with 11,315 having succumbed to it.
A 40% death rate might not seem like the apocalyptic scenario you’d associate with an end-of-the-world type virus… that is, until you put yourself in the worn sandals of some poor West African soul. Imagine your doctor telling you that your chance of surviving your illness is 60%! I’d give up all vestiges of civilized behaviour and kill myself with red wine and tequila before that miserable virus could have a chance to get hold of my internal organs. If you think 40% is bad, however, consider the fact that the death rate of the Zaire Ebolavirus has been as high as 90% in the past:
- 71% in 2007: 187 people dead in the Democratic Republic of Congo
- 90% in 2003: 128 people dead in Democratic Republic of Congo
- 75% in 2001-2002: 44 people dead in Democratic Republic of Congo
- 88% in 1976: 280 people dead in Democratic Republic of Congo
I don’t care how democratic it is, I’m SO removing Congo from my travel plans!
So, while it might sound completely ridiculous to say, the people in the affected areas are at least a little lucky in some glass-half-full kind of way. I do understand this is hard to appreciate when you are bleeding out your bum.
This brings us to the profile of a pathogen so nasty and malicious, it would have had a glittering career in Hitler’s SS.
Profile of a Serial Killer
The Ebola virus belongs to a nasty, sadistic family of pathogens called the Flioviridae that essentially cause the body to haemorrhage uncontrollably – that is, to bleed internally and externally and all-aroundernally. There are five different species of Ebola virus, because for some God-forsaken reason one isn’t enough. They are:
- Zaire Ebolavirus (EBOV)
- Sudan Ebolavirus (SUDV)
- Bundibugyo Ebolavirus (BDBV)
- Reston Ebolavirus (RESTV)
- Taï Forest Ebolavirus (TAFV)
Historically, the three problematic strains of this virus have been the Bundibugyo, the Sudan and the Zaire ebolavirus, the latter of which has been wreaking havoc in West Africa since February 2014. The other two species are, interestingly enough, not typically associated with large outbreaks. In fact, RESTV in particular hasn’t been known to kill anyone ever. Amateur.
A Little Aside: The Ebola virus was named after a river in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was here in 1976 that the first recorded outbreak occurred.
How Is Ebola Transmitted?
You catch Ebola by somehow ingesting the bodily fluids of an infected person. This, given the virus’ tendency to cause flu-like symptoms, uncontrollable diarrhoea and vomiting, is mighty difficult to avoid, especially if you are living in close proximity to the sick person. And this is precisely why the virus tends to spread so quickly amongst family members and to the medical physicians who are trying to treat these patients. Given the lack of proper, sterile medical infrastructure in these poor West African countries and the strange burial ceremonies honoured there (involving kissing and touching the corpses of loved ones passed), this virus is having an utter field day.
Thankfully, in the midst of all the carnage, there’s the fact that the Ebola virus isn’t airborne. That means you can’t get it from breathing in the same air as someone who is infected, so you don’t need to fear the zombie apocalypse the next time some stranger sneezes. Just keep your mouth close and wash your hands regularly.
Symptoms and Signs Your Wife Might Be Cashing In Your life Insurance Policy Soon
Once infected, it could take you as little as a few days or as long as three weeks to start showing symptoms. You’ll feel like crap and probably think you have some kind of flu with symptoms that include achy muscles, a monster headache, fever and a sore throat. Meanwhile beneath the surface of your skin all hell is breaking loose…
Ebola takes up residence inside your body’s cells where it begins its merry task of replicating. Once one has become two, they erupt out of their host cell, completely destroying it in the process. This tiny asshole then starts secreting a kind of protein known as “ebolavirus glycoprotein,” which coats the interior walls of your blood vessels, disintegrating them and leaving them more leaky than a submarine with air vents.
Ebola also impedes your blood’s ability to clot, so you essentially become haemophilic… unable to stop bleeding. One sneeze can initially cause your nose to erupt in a crimson plume of infection, while an accidental bump could leave you looking like you escaped a marriage with Mike Tyson. Eventually, if you survive the fever, dehydration, rashes and swelling long enough to experience the next merry phase of the illness, your blood will start to seep out of your blood vessels in a whole-body internal and external haemorrhage. That’s right. You’ll have blood seeping out of your eyes, nose, gums, ears and other unmentionable bodily orifices.
The next few stops on the Ebola train include disseminated intravascular coagulation, shock and then death.
It’s utterly terrifying.
Where Are Your White Blood Cells When You Need Them?
The reason the Ebola virus has such a high death rate is because it is as keen a master of offence as it is of defence. It actually prevents the white blood cells from “hearing” your body’s natural defence alarm. So while the virus completely destroys your body, your white blood cells – the little guys responsible for protecting your body – are just hanging out, playing cards, drinking beer and hitting on platelets. But wait, it gets worse (or more hilarious depending on how morbid your sense of humour is): the Ebola virus remains so undetected by your immune system that it will actually hitch a ride on your white blood cells to other parts of the body. This explains its rapid spread to all of the body’s major organs and systems.
Sweet Jesus, tell me there’s something modern medicine can do to treat it!
Unfortunately, no. There is no cure and no vaccine for the Ebola virus. In fact, scientists are only now beginning to understand how it works, spreads and wreaks so much havoc on the body. I can imagine that the response from lab technicians willing to volunteer to do the necessary research on live virus specimens must be underwhelming.
I know I’d bunk work that day.
The only thing doctors can do for Ebola virus patients is keep them comfortable, hydrated and clean. It’s up to your body to do the rest, which is why it’s the strong who typically survive this virus.
Where Did the Ebola Virus COME From?
There is a very important field of specialty dedicated to understanding the origin and spread of harmful pathogens and it’s called “epidemiology.” By pinpointing the origin of a particular virus, we can understand HOW it spreads and therefore how to minimize this spread. It is also possible to infer from the point of origin the necessary clues to develop a treatment or vaccine.
In the case of the Ebola virus, the origin is believed to be fruit bats of the family Pteropodidae and genera Myonycteris torquata, Epomops franqueti and Hypsignathus monstrosus. What causes such devastation to us humans bumbles around quite harmlessly within the living tissues of these rodent aviators. The actual transmission of the virus occurs when someone gets the bright idea to have a bat barbecue or sandwich.
Unfortunately, bats are quite popular on the menu in West Africa.
How could you eat that face?
The Ebola virus has also been documented in monkeys, gorillas, chimpanzees and even certain antelope. The problem here is that uneducated people from the villages in these remote areas have no idea of the danger they put themselves in when they come across a dead animal in the forest. They don’t see the harm in prodding it, eating it, or bringing it home with them for whatever reason. They have no idea that swimming around within the coagulating vessels of this deceased creature is a deadly virus that could lay complete waste to their village in a matter of weeks.
Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message
When diagnosing the Ebola virus, doctors are instructed to first rule out a host of other potentially fatal illnesses, including the PLAGUE. You know a sickness is really bad when it could be confused with the plague, for crying out loud! And bad the Ebola virus is. To date and at the time of writing, more than 28,000 people are estimated to have been infected in the outbreak in West Africa.
The take-home message of this particular blog on the Ebola virus could pertain to any lethal virus, I suppose. While there are things we can do to help patients fight off infection and emerge victorious (with one hell of a story to tell the grandchildren), we have to be fully cognisant of the irony that something so small – something invisible – could utterly destroy one of the most successful species on the planet. All we can do is hope that a virus similar in action to the Ebola, but deadlier and more uncontrollable in its spread never, ever makes it out of the dark recesses of our planet.
So, kids, wash your hands before you eat and no matter how tempted you are to try new things, never order bat off the menu.