Ebola: Facts, Fears, and Hope

A primordial fear occurs in each of us when we feel threatened, vulnerable, out of control, or at the mercy of an unseen assailant. The preoccupation and delight with horror films (for example, Contagion, Virus, Outbreak, and countless Zombie movies) and books, such as Steven King’s post-apocalyptic The Stand, are attempts to gain a strategy to defeat these invisible, deadly intruders.

This is the emotional fallout of the media’s documentation of the “sudden” entrance of Ebola to the United States. In fact, Ebola has been studied for years in laboratory specimens to research vaccines and cures. Richard Preston’s book The Hot Zone is described as a true story of an outbreak of Ebola in the 1980’s in Washington, DC. One reviewer considered the book “too sensational” and referred interested readers to two more scientific reports, Virus Hunters of the CDC by Joseph B. McCormick, MD and Susan Fisher-Hoch and Ebola by William T. Close.

Ebola was named after the Ebola River in Zaire in 1976 during its first outbreak in Sudan (Ebola-Sudan) followed by the second strain Ebola-Zaire (EBOZ) that infected over 318 people a few months later in Zaire. EBOZ has produced the highest mortality rate among Ebola viruses; 88% of these individuals died. The third strain, Ebola Reston (EBOR) was identified in 1989 when infected monkeys were imported into Reston, Virginia from Mindanao in the Philippines. Those who were infected did not develop Ebola hemorrhagic fever (EHF). The fourth strain, Ebola Cote d’Ivoire (EBO-CI) was identified in 1994 when an ethologist was infected while performing an autopsy on a chimpanzee from the Tai Forest, Cote d’Ivoire. Despite intense research, Ebola’s natural reservoir has not yet been identified, but experts suspect that the virus is carried by bats or small mammals, probably monkeys in particular. A new outbreak has been documented every 3 to 5 years in Africa, probably when a person is bitten or exposed to the blood of an infected animal by eating or handling raw or undercooked meat.

Who is infected, is a troublesome question. Much like the flu, the first symptom is fever. Yet how high should the temperature be? And with a fever, definitive symptoms take 2 to 21 days to develop. How many false positives will there be? Over the past 8 years, PositiveID has produced devices used by custom officials that detect lethal material. The company claims that Firefly Dx, a handheld, point-of-need device, is designed to detect pathogens, such as Ebola within 20 minutes. As Lyle Probst, President of PositiveID has said, “In the past, so few people had contracted and died of Ebola that it was a neglected area of drug research.” No more.

Treatment of Ebola revolves around supportive care to stabilize the patient’s fluids and electrolytes while maintaining blood pressure and oxygenation. At the same time, the healthcare provider needs to exert meticulous and scrupulous attention to infection control. Even a single, unintentional slip can result in contamination. See CNN Health news article, “What’s a hospital supposed to do if an Ebola patient shows up?

Even though scientists know what Ebola does to the body, the real question is, what is the physiological difference between those who survive and those who do not? Scientists suspect it is the strength of an individual’s immune system that withstands the initial viral attack. In West Africa, about 40% of people infected with the virus have survived. For more current information on the effect of Ebola on the human body, visit MDhealth.com.

Though Ebola is highly contagious, it infects an individual only through intimate contact with body fluids during the time when the patient is very sick. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has published standards of care to prevent the spread of the viral infection. The CDC release, October 28, 2014; Update: Ebola Virus Disease Outbreak — West Africa, October 2014 highlights the current incidence rate of the disease in West Africa.

In an attempt to take the fear out of Ebola, there is a kid-friendly model of the Ebola virus, “the T. Rex of microbes” that can be ordered from Giant Microbes., Inc.

For investors who worry about the economic impact of Ebola, read: “What To Do When Ebola Headlines Hit Your Stock Portfolio” at Forbes.com.

For those who perceive Ebola as a sign of an upcoming apocalypse and who believe that “fear attracts disease and sickness,” read: “What to Do About Ebola”.