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Small Killers, Big Threat

Has a virus ever infected you? Of course one has, almost everyone has had experience with the common cold, which is caused by a virus. Other than being troublesome and annoying, this particular virus doesn’t pose much risk to our healthin these modern times. But what about the viruses that do pose a significant risk to our health? These dangerous viruses can greatly effect human society as a whole if an outbreak ever occurred. But first you ask yourself, what is a virus exactly? Viruses are completely unique from anything else found on earth, one reason being that they are so small that they cannot be viewed without an electron microscope. Viruses are actually so small that the largest virus is smaller than the smallest bacteria. Another thing that makes a virus unique is the different shape it takes on. They come in rods, crystals, helixes, spheres, and many other shapes. A virus carries proteins and nucleic acids in a protective coat called the capsid. An antigen or extension on a virus allows the virus to identify and attack its target host. Human viruses tend to be spherical and enter into different cells in the body to code the body’s cells with its own instructions. In this way, a virus is like a robot or machine that needs a factory to help produce more of its own kind. The human body has many different ways of providing the virus suitable chemicals and molecules for its own self-propagation. Of course, what makes a virus even more dangerous is its ability to change its shape and proteins it carries so that it is seen as an entirely new organism. In this same fashion, they are able to even jump between species. Now that one knows what a virus is, it is easy to see the potential damage they can do to the world as a whole. But often, viruses are discarded by the general public as a sort of mystery, something that doesn’t really matter or even exist in their minds until they come in contact with it. However, these viruses pose a huge threat to society today, and many people do not realize just how dangerous they are. (Virus Basics)

Not all viruses are lethal. Even fewer could become widespread enough to infect people around the world. However, there are three very dangerous viruses that do have the potential to become the grim reapers of twentieth century, mass killers of humankind if they were ever to get loose in a highly populated society. Take for example Ebola. Ebola is part of the family of viruses called Filoviridae. These viruses are usually branched in shape, or at other times spherical. Ebola is most commonly found in primates, but it has been found in humans as well, and scientists still do not know how it jumps from apes to humans with such ease. The Ebola virus has many different strains, but they are most common in Africa, which is the presumed origin of this virus. Once in a human host, the virus can be spread quickly, through particles in the air, a cough, sneeze, or spitting could spread the virus to other people surrounding the infected person. The biggest threat would be if someone were on an airplane, which recycles all of its air, and started throwing up or coughing. The infected air particles would be re-circulated over and over inside the plane, infecting countless others or none at all (Preston). The symptoms of Ebola are severe and easy to recognize. Incubation of the virus is about four to sixteen days. The first symptoms are a severe front and temporal headache, aches and pains, often along the spinal cord, and by the second day, the victim will have a severe fever. Following symptoms include watery diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, sore throat, and anorexia. Usually by day seven the infected person will start to notice raised spots along the skin, along with a bad rash. While this is happening, they will also have hemorrhaging inside the stomach, and lungs, but can occur from any orifice, mucous membrane or skin site. After this, the person’s skin starts to fall away from the rash, and all internal organs have lesions and are generally completely dead or dying at this time. They turn black and can no longer serve their functions (Pro-med). Scientists still do not know why some people are able to recover after having Ebola, and some aren’t. However, due to the relatively quick time frame of the Ebola virus, it does not stretch out the period of suffering for an extended period of time. However, it is easy to see how this virus could be mistaken at first for the flu, and not be treated for what it really is, with the result being death. The thought of what this virus could do on a wide scale is absolutely terrifying.

In terms of quickly becoming widespread and having the largest amount of victims, Ebola is the most frightening possibility. However, there is another, lesser known virus that is not quite as lethal, but is much more devastating to the human body. This is the Marburg virus, which is also a part of the Filovirus family. Marburg’s first outbreak was within Europe, in Marburg, Germany. The workers there became infected after coming in contact with monkeys, and then spread the disease to others, mostly family members. (CDC) The Marburg virus is indigenous to Africa, yet researchers do not know what host it occupies within Africa, and they also do not know how it transfers from animal to human. Marburg’s biggest potential to infect others would be in a hospital situation in which an infected person came, and if that person touched items and small droplets of blood, saliva, or any other tissue or fluid on things. If others touched these, they could become infected. “A hot agent is especially dangerous since a microbe may be airborne, capable of traveling in tiny water droplets through the air.” (Dyer) Symptoms of Marburg are similar to Ebola, yet take longer to lead to the eventual death, thus resulting in a much more painful disease. It usually has an incubation period of five to ten days and then the virus attacks suddenly upon the body. The infected will have a fever, chills, and a pulsating headache. Usually around the fifth day of symptoms a rash along with bumps along the skin will show up on the body. After this comes nausea, vomiting, chest pain, sore throat, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. The symptoms get worse and worse, leading to inflammation of the pancreas, weight loss, delirium, shock, liver failure, massive hemorrhaging, and multi-organ dysfunction (CDC). Towards the end of the virus, as the victim’s organs die, the body tries to reject them, to get rid of them. It is not uncommon for the victim to have their tongue literally fall out, or actually vomit up their intestines. In some cases, bits of various organs have been known to be excreted. (Preston) In Richard Preston’s book, The Hot Zone, he describes what happens to a man that has contracted the Marburg virus in Africa.

He becomes dizzy and utterly weak, and his spine goes limp and nerveless and he loses all sense of balance. The room is turning around and around. He is going into shock. He leans over, head on his knees, and brings up an incredible quantity of blood from his stomach and spills it onto the floor with a gasping groan. He loses consciousness and pitches forward onto the floor. The only sound is a choking in his throat as he continues to vomit blood and black matter while unconscious. Then comes a sound like a bedsheet being torn in half, which is the sound of his bowels opening and venting blood from the anus. The blood is mixed with intestinal lining. He has sloughed his gut. The linings of his intestines have come off and are being expelled along with huge amounts of blood…Having destroyed its host, the hot agent is now coming out of every orifice, and is ‘trying’ to find a new host.” (Preston 23)
The problem with this particular virus is that since “many of the signs and symptoms of Marburg hemorrhagic fever are similar to those of other infectious diseases, such as malaria or typhoid fever, diagnosis of the disease can be difficult, especially if only a single case is involved.” (CDC)

Just how real are the possibilities of one of these exotic viruses causing an outbreak here in America? Well, unknown to many, there was an outbreak of Ebola ,in nineteen eighty nine in Reston, USA. A monkey house became infected with Ebola, and four humans got the virus, but amazingly, did not die. The closeness of this virus outbreak within the US has frightened many by how easily it could have spread if not properly and immediately contained (Preston). But how would the virus get here in the first place? One of the biggest possibilities would be from someone coming into America from Africa, or from visiting Africa, where they could have contracted the disease from someone else. They would come into America as a human biological time bomb, easily infecting many people. Currently in Uganda there is an outbreak of Ebola, killing many people and spreading in a wide circle. However, the reason it doesn’t perpetuate itself is because it kills its hosts faster than it can spread, it burns out. In one case in Zaire, five hundred people were infected, four hundred sixty of those died from the disease. As you can see, the fatality is very high, in the ninety percentile (Pro-med). Another possibility is bio-terrorism. You might ask just who would use Ebola to try and infect people, but that is what people must have thought before Anthrax became real. In Asia, a terrorist sent some of his men into Africa to specifically get the Ebola virus with whatever means possible, infecting themselves if they had to, so that he could spread the disease to the public. However, his men came back empty handed, so he used other means to terrorize the people, however, what if he had found the virus? The results would have been horrendous. Controlling any size population during an outbreak would be near impossible. Just having people hear that a lethal virus was running rampant through their city or state could cause complete pandemonium, people thinking it is over and they will go into a panic. Of course, the government and army would do what it could to contain the infection, however, the enemy is invisible to the human eye and all but the electron microscope. It is hard to fight against what you cannot see (Elliot). The Center for Disease Control (CDC) says, “Due to our limited knowledge of the disease (Ebola), preventive measures against transmission…have not yet been established.” This would not reassure the public, which is why a national announcement would most likely not occur unless the outbreak became so large that others knew about it. Such happened in Reston, where the outbreak was a complete media blackout so as not to alarm the public.

Researching a cure for these viruses is very challenging due to their nature of being so small, and the cases of the virus not very common. With Ebola, the CDC says that although proper prevention is only through special equipment, one can take some practical precautions to reduce risk of transmitting or contracting the virus. Sterilizing all medical equipment after use on an infected patient is a must, and protective clothing and facewear must be worn. Avoiding contact with the infected persons blood and infected tissue is recommended as well. This is the same with Marburg. As for the victims themselves, there is not much medical science can do for them. Medical treatment generally consists of “supportive therapy”. This basically just means to try and keep the patient alive for as long as possible, giving blood, water, and possibly anti-blood coagulants. (Dyer 6)The doctors are very limited in what they can do until an effective treatment is found, and until they can determine why some people survive when others don’t. However, the CDC says that it will continue testing with Ebola and Marburg in order to try and develop a cure before an actual outbreak occurs.

Although the thought of an outbreak here in America is frightening, we should not let it scare us into becoming paranoid. Yes, people could get sick from these viruses, however they are uncommon as of right now, and so should be viewed warily, and be watched to make sure they do not start an endemic here. As long as all of us do our part to try and take preventive measures against contracting not only these two deadly diseases, but all other viruses, we should be ok. As the search for a complete cure continues, the scientists will continue working on these viruses to help protect you and I from these viruses, these silent killers.




Works sited:

2001 Disease News: Ebola. 10 April 2001. Promed. 7 Dec. 2001.

CDC: Disease and Virus Information. Center for Disease Control. 7 Dec. 2001

Characteristics of a Virus. 1 Dec. 2001. Virus Basics. 7 Dec. 2001.

Dyer, Nicole. “Killers Without Cures.” Science World 57.3 (2000): 1-8

Elliot, Michael. “A Clear and Present Danger.” Time Oct. 2001: 26 – 39.

Preston, Richard. The Hot Zone. New York, NY: Doubleday Dell Publishing Group

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