The current death toll of the 2014 Ebola outbreak is nearly 4,000. To put this outbreak in perspective, traffic fatalities for the state of Texas last year were 3,377, and the Black Death killed around 100,000,000 in the 14th century.
Ebola is a beautiful virus, with the whimsy of a dancing lady. Yet she is terrifying and appears to have a fatality rate on par with Black Death’s. Ebola is worthy of our respect and attention.
To use a larger frame of comparison, filoviruses like Ebola are up to 93 million years old. So, don’t think because humans named a virus in 1976 after the Ebola River that the virus isn’t older than modern humans.
Indeed, logic suggests that bats and some rodents faced their own crisis 10 million years ago with “Ebola” (i.e. a filovirus), but instead of going extinct, they permanently absorbed the virus into their genes (Taylor et al 2010). Now, Ebola is a but a common cold to bats, maybe less. Bats and rodents have probably been infecting humans with Ebola-like viruses since…well, before modern humans.
What’s changed to cause a human Ebola outbreak coursing through major cities? Mainly, the presence of major cities.
African great apes suffer from ebola too. Because apes live in small groups–for instance, chimpanzees in communities of 40 to 60–there is essentially a firewall between ape communities that prevents unchecked inter-community spread. An entire chimpanzee community might be wiped-out without infecting a neighboring chimp community at all. Similarly, until recent times, people lived in small tribes and farming communities. Then they moved into dense cities, and sometimes filthy shantytowns, where there is no inherent firewall to stop a class 4 pathogen like Ebola.
Could Ebola become a modern Black Death, killing a few hundred million people? If it did, then the survivors would probably develop a long-term natural immunity. Just 500 years ago, such an epidemic was possible, but now we are horrified by even 4,000 dying, so we take steps to prevent a natural evolutionary outcome like bats faced millions of years ago. And here, Nigeria is on full display.
Nigeria has shown us that, during Ebola outbreaks, careful quarantine of Ebola, plus general caution about touching or coming near to other people in everyday life, causes a quick Ebola burnout. And Ebola is not very successful at restocking itself into the human population after it burns out, requiring most likely a bizarre combination of bat-to-ape-to-human transmission, which is why Ebola outbreaks are rare. But when Ebola outbreaks do happen, there is rapid evolution of the virus because of urban density.
What’s troubling: the 2014 Ebola crisis indicates that the virus is evolving to be airborne. Health workers who have contracted Ebola have not reported being doused with bodily fluids from the infected. It is likely that the disease is now similar to influenza, where tiny droplets, too small for humans to see as “bodily fluids”, can pass through the air and infect new people. This transmission might be as simple as a whiff of the odor of the vomit of the Ebola-infected.
There is evidence to support Ebola’s tendency to be airborne. Reston ebolavirus, a form nearly identical to the Zaire ebolavirus driving our current outbreak, is proven to be air transmissible. This would be like two athletic cousins who look alike both making the varsity soccer team: not very surprising. This fact, mixed with observing how easily Ebola has spread across borders in 2014, indicate that Ebola has probably mutated to become airborne this year.
Interestingly, after the current outbreak stops, the next time an animal-to-human Ebola transmission happens, the virus will have to evolve again to become air transmissible. This is an example of how Ebola is too hot of a virus in humans for its own good; If humans quarantine and end the outbreak, Ebola loses all the evolutionary steps it made during that outbreak; essentially succumbing to reverse-evolution.
What’s disappointing: conventional medicine’s insistence on experimental drugs, when blood or plasma transfusion from the Ebola-recovered is the benelles-friendly approach.
The blood of the Ebola-recovered contains antibodies which cure against the Ebola virus. You will note how Dr. Kent Brantley, Ashoka Mukpo, and Dr. Richard Sacra all recovered from Ebola nicely and quickly, while Thomas Duncan died. The former three had blood transfusions from someone else who was ebola-recovered, while Duncan received only experimental drugs.
Until a vaccine is created, the obvious solution is for the world community to pay African Ebola-survivors to donate to an emergency-response blood bank in Africa, which can quickly treat the Ebola-infected at the start of new outbreaks. Blood could even be given to health workers in advance.
What’s idiotic: blaming protocol errors for the current epidemic. Only morons think that no one ever lies on an airplane travel questionnaire, that every nurse washes her hands perfectly every time, and that every hospital correctly analyzes data on every patient. We’re not going to stop Ebola, or any virus, if we’re counting on flawless execution by humans across the globe.
What will be interesting: to see if new cases of Ebola untraceable to Africa appear in the United States. Predominant virus theory suggests that living reservoir hosts are necessary, but there is not actually enough research to know whether a virus like Ebola may be able to exist in a dry-dormant state in buildings, houses, stores, et al, like seeds that simply need to be hydrated to become active. Let’s say a child runs her finger across a windowsill with Ebola virus particles, then licks her finger later that day. If such a lick is enough to reactive dry virus seeds, then Ebola could retain its evolutionary gains, such as being airborne, and become a long-term, random antagonist for us.