I am, and have always been, a bit of a science geek. It started off with that curious obsession with dinosaurs that most young boys have (what *is* that all about, anyway?), then it branched in to other not-so-common fascinations such as complex weather systems (supercell storms/hurricanes/tornadoes), climate, continental drift, volcanoes and earthquakes, the universe and the planets, and then – viruses, bacteria and other pathogens.
My fascination with Ebola began after I watched Outbreak –with Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman starring- a film with the premise of a rare, but incredibly virulent Central African disease that mutates in to an airborne strain and threatens the entire world. The virus in the film, named Motaba, is pretty much identical to the Ebola virus in its origins, its appearance, and its symptoms, except it was glorified in the usual Hollywood style to give it a 100% kill rate, as opposed to Ebola’s 50-90% mortality rate.
I couldn’t believe there was anything like it in the real world. Ebola has no cure, or vaccine, and a natural reservoir has yet to be found. I would look at Africa on the map and think about that mysterious disease that cropped up sporadically with devastating consequences just to vanish in to the jungle. If the local people had any clue, I don’t know how they lived any other way except in fear. The virus incubates in the body for as long as 21 days – that means it can be inside you without you showing symptoms. But once a person starts feeling unwell, that’s when the virus can spread from person to person. It starts with ordinary, flu like symptoms; which is probably why the media has had a field day selling papers and attracting readers by shouting “pandemic!” (Everyone tested negative, by the way.) But when it truly kicks in, a victim can expect to suffer:
- Violent headaches
- Sweats and chills
- Hair falling out
- Nails falling off
- Skin on the tongue splitting open
- Internal bleeding
- External bleeding from every orifice including eyes, genitals and bottom
- Liquification of the external organs (actually, it really messes them up, but that’s a bit of a dramatic word)
The symptoms are what gripped me. It was sheer overkill. They sound like something only the darkest and most inventive horror novelist could dream off. In fact, when it first surfaced in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formally known as “Zaire”), the doctors fled the village in panic.
But what also scared me half-to-death was that there is one strain of Ebola that is airborne. That means, you can catch it just by breathing the same air as an infected person. This strain, known as Ebola Reston, was discovered in Reston, Virginia, in the USA. Fortunately, the virus only affects non-human primates. That’s actually very lucky, because we would have been in big trouble otherwise. It provoked a scare, given the nature of the disease and its proximity to Washington D.C. because it had entered the USA completely undetected. It was brought in on the backs of imported monkeys unknowingly infected and only discovered when they started dropping like flies.
The Motaba virus (which Dustin Hoffman saved the world from – thanks Dustin!) started out like Ebola, but mutated in to an airborne virus which threatened civilization. That story, coupled with the Ebola Reston scare, along with the very real possibility that a new strain could mutate and take to the air, is what kept me alarmed, yet very curious. Well, that and I was immersed by Stephen King’s The Stand (a post-apocalyptic, about a plague pandemic).
The Ebola outbreak scares me, yet rationally as it stands, I know there is almost no danger of it reaching Britain, or elsewhere outside of Africa. The poor sanitation and education and equipment the Africans have is doing Ebola a good favour, but other countries are better prepared. But still, there is always that little boy in me, remembering the dreaded Motaba, Dustin’s incredibly worried face and raised voice, and Stephen King’s unforgettable descriptions of an America savaged by plague…