The deadliest outbreak of Ebola in 40 years is currently sweeping across West Africa. Last week, international health officials warned that, due to budget cuts, the World Health Organization is no longer able to adequately respond to the Ebola outbreak, which has killed over 600 people in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.
That’s troubling news for the West African nations that find themselves in the virus’s path, but it should also serve as a warning for citizens of other countries, including America.
Ebola is classified as a Biosafety Level 4 agent, which are extremely dangerous to humans because they are highly infectious, have a high case-fatality rate, and have no known treatments or cures. The deadliest form of the virus has a 90 percent mortality rate.
Since symptoms don’t immediately appear, Ebola can easily spread as people travel from region to region. Once the virus takes hold, many of the infected die in an average of 10 days.
Increasingly, it has become apparent that human activities such as mining and deforestation are playing a role in the spread of Ebola and other deadly diseases. In West Africa, where logging and slash and burn agriculture is bringing human populations into increasing contact with forests, the evidence is especially clear. A 1994 outbreak of Ebola occurred in gold mining camps deep in the region’s rain forest. Mining also appears to play a role in the latest outbreak: Its epicenter is in the south east of Guinea, close to iron ore reserves.
The continued encroachment and destruction of the world’s rainforests is especially troubling: The rain forests contain the greatest diversity of life on the planet, which means they also contain the greatest number of diseases.
While many Americans may assume Ebola is a problem only for third world, poverty stricken nations, the evidence suggests otherwise.
Several months ago I happened to read the novel “The Hot Zone,” which details the true story of an Ebola virus outbreak in a suburban Washington, D.C. laboratory during the late 1980s. Far more frightening than any Stephen King novel, the book describes how Ebola made its way from the Philippines to facilities in Virginia and Pennsylvania by way of imported monkeys used for medical research.
The book also describes, in excruciating detail, the effects of Ebola on the human body. Symptoms may appear anywhere from two to 21 days and include vomiting, diarrhea, and internal bleeding accompanied with decreased functioning of the liver and kidneys. Prolonged or excessive bleeding occurs in the final stages of the virus, which destroys the blood’s ability to clot.
The U.S. outbreak described in “The Hot Zone” isn’t an isolated incident: In 1990, infected monkeys were found in a Virginia research facility. That same year, and again in 1996, research monkeys in Texas were found to have Ebola.
Though several humans developed Ebola antibodies during these incidents none became sick with the virus. And while Ebola was proven to be capable of airborne transmission in monkeys, thus far humans have become infected only though contact with the blood or bodily fluids of another human or an infected animal.
Given the notoriously high rate of mutation shown by viruses, however, that fact could change overnight. A small mutation in the Ebola virus’s gene structure is all that would be required to allow it to become transmitted through the air, a development that, considering the ease of global travel and the virus’s unprecedented mortality rate, could have potentially devastating consequences for the human race.
And perhaps that would be a fitting end for our species, which has been around for a mere fraction of the Earth’s 4.5 billion year history and yet has the hubris to believe it can’t possibly go the way of 99 percent of all other species that have ever inhabited this planet.
Whenever I hear a story about a new Ebola outbreak, I’m always reminded of the words of comedienne George Carlin, a man who had few illusions about our place in the grand scheme. “The planet can defend itself in an organized, collective way, the way a beehive or an ant colony can…What would you do if you were the planet? How would you defend yourself against this troublesome, pesky species? Let’s see… viruses?”