MEDFORD, MA — The current outbreak of the Ebola virus across central and western Africa has been the worst documented in history. It has taken the lives of over 1,300 patients and doesn’t show signs of future cessation, not with rife incredulity, abject quarantined breeding grounds and treatment clinic escapees perpetuating the deathly contagious virus. These facts and figures swamp today’s news, but there are critical details that have been left out.
To understand the true implications of such a humanitarian disaster, it is good to know the history and, at least, the rudimentary biology. Formerly known as the Ebola haemorrhagic fever, the virus was first brought to international attention in 1976, when two simultaneous outbreaks accounted for over 600 deaths in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The latter village is situated on the Ebola river, from which the Ebola disease gets its name.
River, rainforest and other tropical regions are particularly susceptible to Ebola, making areas like West Africa an optimal environment for the disease. Scientists have traced the virus to fruit bats of the Pteropodidae family, the natural carrier. These bats often test positive for Ebola but do not display any of the symptoms. They are reservoirs for illness, making clear the potential harm in human-wild animal interaction.
Before a human is infected, he must come into contact with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of an infected animal. Bats, as previously mentioned, are the natural carriers, but transmissions can occur from chimpanzees and gorillas as well. Once humans are infected with Ebola, transmission works in the same way. This means that the more unsanitary a region is, the more likely the disease is to spread.
Making matters worse, both people who have recovered from and people who have died of the disease can transmit it. Ebola victim funerals thus propagate the virus by putting relatives and loved ones in close contact with a still infected body. There is also a good chance that, like the current upsurge, outbreaks begin with infected infants, possibly those who have swallowed contaminated dirt and are intimate with mothers or other family members.
The symptoms of Ebola are nothing short of terrifying. Prodromes, or early manifestations of the illness, include fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. Later developments of the disease are more severe, involving vomiting, diarrhea, rashes, impaired kidney and liver function and internal and external bleeding. The fatality rate is 90 percent and there is no verified cure, although doctors are working tirelessly to produce one.
Inside the body, the virus targets a number of different types of cells, notably white blood cells and platelet cells. The white blood cells Ebola targets are called phagocytes. They protect the body by ingesting harmful, foreign particles such as malign bacteria, and are necessary in protecting the body against infections. They also play a critical role in developing immunities.
Ebola additionally targets endothelial cells, cells that line the thin interior of blood and lymphatic vessels called the endothelium, and hepatocytes, cells of the liver tissue. These cells are involved in protein synthesis, protein storage, carbohydrate transformation and other important biological processes.
In short, Ebola replication overwhelms protein synthesis, spreads throughout the entire body via the circulatory system and suppresses the immune system before, unless one is exceedingly fortunate, killing the patient. Grasping the severity of the Ebola virus is a good first step in voicing solidarity, taking advocacy and contributing aid.
– Adam Kaminski