The 2014 West Africa Ebola Outbreak

A short overview of the virus and outbreak, in plain language.

Ebola’s DNA (well, RNA) is small compared to a human. Ebola has about 19,000 base pairs, and only seven genes. By comparison, humans have about 3,000,000,000 base pairs, and about 21,000 genes.

Ebola is scattered around the African bush. Mammals like shrews and bats carry it, and may not get sick. Bigger mammals do get sick from it. It’s in bat saliva, on fruit, and in the blood of mammals that people catch and eat. It’s not really living, it’s just a set of genetic instructions that gloms onto your genetic machinery and makes it go crazy. Some people who live in the bush have an acquired immunity to it, probably from low-level exposure to it — they get a tiny bit into their body, and their body handles it okay and builds up some immunity.

The way it works is sort of fascinating and super scary at the same time.

Ebola turns the lining of your blood vessels into a little factory that produces more Ebola that destroys the lining of your blood vessels, while suppressing your immune system response. And then Ebola hijacks your white blood cells to ride through the rest of your body’s circulatory system to do the same to all the rest of your blood vessels.

You get super sick — fever, vomiting, diarrhea. Imagine this happening in little villages and towns in West Africa, where people often don’t have enough water each day to drink, much less wash their hands.

Let me repeat that—where people often don’t have enough water each day to drink.

And if you don’t even have water to drink or to wash your hands, you certainly don’t have luxuries like soap, or cleaning and disinfecting solution, or disposable gloves and masks and gowns and boots and goggles.

If you’re lucky, your body finally catches on to the virus tricks, and starts recovering. You can get all the way better.

If you’re unlucky, your blood vessels all disintegrate, and you die.

If your family or the people caring for you are unlucky, they get some of the virus from your bodily fluids — vomit, diarrhea, blood — into their bodily fluids, and the process repeats in their bodies.

“Patient zero” — the first case scientists can track back to in this outbreak — was a 2-year-old boy, who died on December 6, 2013. It spread through his family, and then through other people, until thousands of people have had it. About half have died.

Around March 2014, it was clear it was going to be a big outbreak. Two non-governmental humanitarian organizations, Doctors Without Borders and Samaritan’s Purse, jumped in and did a lot to help people, but it wasn’t enough. The health ministries and medical people in the West African countries are overwhelmed.

The international response has been getting bigger. The World Health Organization (WHO) is on full alert, and put out a plan on August 28, 2014. The current WHO goal is to stop Ebola transmission in the affected countries within six to nine months, and to prevent it from spreading internationally. It’ll cost about 500 million dollars.

With that timeline—six to nine months—probably about 20,000 more people will get sick, and about 10,000 of them will die.

Here are some links to more detailed information about Ebola and this year’s outbreak.

Here are some questions to think about and discuss with others, in this day and age of wonders.

  • Should everybody around the world have enough water, food, sanitation, and basic healthcare?
  • Should we have a reserve corps of health workers (it would have to be in the thousands or even tens of thousands of people) trained and ready for this sort of outbreak?
  • Should we have transportation and supply plans prepared for this sort of outbreak? (Airlines have been cancelling flights to the affected area, which makes it harder to move supplies and people there.)
  • In this outbreak, could we do more, faster? Or, at this point, are those 10,000 additional deaths inevitable?
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