Ebola: The World's Most Terrifying Disease?

If a Martian were to land on earth to study humanity, one of the things that would no doubt surprise him about our race is the pleasure it takes in contemplating its own extinction by various catastrophic means: the crash into earth of a giant asteroid, climate change or the spread of new, virulent and untreatable diseases, especially caused by viruses that emerged from the African jungle.

Of all the viruses to have emerged of late, Ebola is the most frightening. It comes in several varieties of different virulence, with (according to a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine) death rates from a "low" 40 percent to over 70 percent. Among monkeys the death rate can be 100 percent.

Before Ebola there was Marburg, so named because it was first recognized among laboratory workers in Marburg, Germany. This virus is spread from fruit bats to monkeys to humans, and I happened to be in Rhodesia (as it was then still called) when there was an epidemic there of the disease and 33 percent of the patients died. I remember the reaction in the hospital between panic and pride that it should be in the eye of a world-publicized storm. The question on everyone’s mind was whether it could spread on a large scale from Africa to Europe and North America. Could the virus escape its ecological niche?

Ebola virus causes an illness similar to Marburg only even more dangerous. The patient has a severe flu-like illness at first, but it soon gets worse. Both Marburg and Ebola are what are known as hemorrhagic fevers, that is to say fevers that cause the blood to fail to coagulate properly so that bleeding becomes general. It is a horrible thing to see and way to die: patients leak blood everywhere.

There is as yet no treatment for the disease. Complete isolation of the patients is the only known way to prevent spread. It is not easy to conduct research into it for a number of reasons. First, outbreaks are (so far) uncommon – the article was stimulated by a fresh outbreak in Guinea. This makes research and trials of treatment difficult to arrange. Second, the areas in which outbreaks occur are very remote from laboratory facilities. Third, the transport of specimens is itself difficult and dangerous, since the virus seems so easily communicated to humans by them, and then human to human transmission can then occur, potentially giving rise to an epidemic. And finally there is the intrinsic difficulty of developing treatment for viral diseases.


As yet, the source of the virus is not known. By analogy with Marburg disease, fruit bats are suspected, but no trace of the virus has ever been found in a fruit bat. Attempts to eliminate fruit bats in Africa by means of poison are made more to prevent the damage they do to fruit cops than because they carry dangerous viruses. Efforts to develop a vaccine have so far not been successful. A picture of the virus in the article makes it look like a huge fat worm covered in flies, the very image of biological evil.

Although the article is titled "Ebola – a Growing Threat?", it does not broach the question, let alone answer it. Perhaps the author did not want to feed the fuel the fantasies of Hollywood or sow panic. Is the virus transmissible to the bats of Europe and America, for example? Once introduced into dense populations with no immunity to the disease, could it spread like the Spanish flu of the post-Great War years that killed at least three or four times as many people as the war itself? The author does not address these vulgar questions.


image via shutterstock / Creations