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Going Viral

August 16, 2014 | Alice | Comments (5) Facebook Twitter More...

Biohazard from michigan dot govOutbreaks. They are both fascinating and alarming, the perfect combination to make them the stuff of novels and movies and breathless news stories. Like lately? The Ebola virus outbreak? I'm riveted.

My fascination with all things viral and epidemic-related began a long time back, but exploded when I read Richard Preston's books The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer. These are about epidemics, emerging viruses, vaccination and eradication, and the potential for bio-terrorism, and they are amazing. The best part is that he's a true master of what we call narrative non-fiction - he writes like a storyteller, the real people who inhabit the factual accounts presented like characters, and it is extremely interesting and readable. (By contrast, he wrote a fiction book that really didn't work as well!) From then on, I was hooked. Everyone who knew me got sick of hearing about those books.

And now? The news is reporting on an outbreak of the Ebola virus that started this spring. Ebola_Virus from CDCs PHIL_1832It's really interesting, though not in the same way as those books, because this is real time, and people are suffering horribly from this deadly disease. It's not the first outbreak, and not even the first outbreak of Ebola, but there is something about this disease and others like it that is so awful, it's almost unreal. There are other hemorrhagic viruses as well, Marburg, Dengue Fever, Lassa Fever, and a couple of others with names for the specific locales of their discoveries.

And there have been much worse outbreaks of horrific diseases throughout history. Plague. Smallpox. Various Influenza pandemics. Polio. Typhiod. Disease has been the constant companion of mankind through the ages, as it has for animals and plants, as well. 

So why is this so intriguing? Well, there's an element of danger, of course, which always gets our attention. In the case of these more exotic diseases, it's also at enough of a remove for people to feel less immediately threatened, and at the same time drawn in by the really unusual nature of a disease unlike others we've seen here. And, of course, what makes it perfect fodder for spinning stories, there is the "what-if" factor. What would we do to protect ourselves if it happened here? How would we stop it? Can it be stopped? Sounds just like the questions that come with alien movies, doesn't it? It's the same sort of idea - a mysterious enemy, danger, and the race to set things back to normal.

But meantime, with a real-world epidemic going on across the ocean, are there things you should know?

Why it is scary: It's a really awful disease. The symptoms are horrifying, and the death rate is usually quoted at 90%, though this outbreak seems to be sitting at more like 60%, which is interesting, given that it's also the biggest one yet and may actually be giving more accurate numbers because of the larger sample size.

Biosafety_level_4_hazmat_suitWhy it's NOT scary: It's not easy to catch unless you are around someone in the final stages of the disease. People are contagious until they are showing the first symptoms, and even then, it's not airborne, you have to be in contact with the body fluids of the person suffering. Which means health care workers on the ground in this epidemic are in danger, family members caring for victims at home are putting themselves in danger, but just being out and about in the world? Not a problem. Also? There's never been a case in North America, and hopefully the airport screening going on will help prevent that from changing.