Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The ELE Series—Outbreak

In only a year and a half, the Spanish flu of 1918 killed as many as 90 million people around the world... that's more people in 20 months than AIDS has killed in 20 years.

Our modern understanding of hygiene has helped prevent similar catastrophes, but some viral outbreaks cannot be so easily navigated. Today's most dangerous virus is Marburg, originating from the same geographic "hot zone" as AIDS; with only a 0%-3% survival rate (no known patients have been discharged after having contracted Marburg) and no known cure, infectious disease scientists commonly refer to Marburg as a "slate wiper for humans". Most of us walk around ignorant of the dangers of a deadly flu outbreak, but Marburg scares the crap out of infectious disease scientists because their job is to be intimately familiar with this killer germ.

Marburg (pictured at left) is a hemorraghic fever, meaning it's a disease that "bleeds". Blood clots in the bloodstream clog small capillaries, which stop the blood supply to organs (including the brain), skin, intestines... basically, all affected parts of the body die prematurely, waiting only for the rest of the body to catch up. In the later stages of this virus, victims bleed from every orafice: mouth, gums, eyes, nose, ears, anus, vagina, fingertips. The virus attacks each cell of its host in an attempt to convert the host, cell by cell, into itself—this has the nasty effect of liquifying organs and turning the host's body into a walking time bomb of infection. By day three of exposure, one drop of blood may only have 200 viruses in it, but in only five days it will have duplicated its virus load to over five million. (A highly detailed account of Ebola's symptoms can be found here.) Since it is an Afrian tradition to physically care for cadavers after death, Marburg and other hemorhaggic fever cousins like Ebola Zaire and Ebola Sudan frequently decimate villages in that region.

Thankfully, Marburg and Ebola Zaire (pictured at left) can only be transmitted through blood and saliva and the virus is so "hot" that it burns up its victims before it can incubate and spread the virus far enough to do too much damage. Plainly put, as long as you stand back and wait, the poor infected victims will eventually die. The nightmare scenario nobody wants to think about is if Marburg or Ebola Zaire mutate into an airborne virus and does spread far enough that you don't realize how many people are incubating until it's already everywhere.

In 1989, 100 Macaque monkeys were illegally shipped to a warehouse is Virginia. Some of these monkeys were found dying of an unknown strain of hemorragic fever, the virus spreading quickly due to their cramped living conditions. No direct evidence showed humans could catch this particular strain of the hemorragic fever, but nobody dared risk it—all the monkeys were put down, their bodies incinerated. The warehouse was thoroughly disinfected with industrial strength bleach and extremely bright UV light to burn any remaining germs. While technically "clean", the warehouse remains vacant to this day. (You get the sense that authorities would have nuked the place if they could have.)

And then, a shocking discovery—after the warehouse had long been cleaned, it surfaced that a warehouse employee caring for the monkeys had caught a "cold" and vomited blood during a violent coughing fit... but a week later, he had completely recovered. Though highly coincidental, there was no certainty he had contracted the monkeys' virus. The awful truth is that nobody knew about this employee's cold until long after the monkeys had been cremated. Had this employee been incubating a deadly hemorraghic fever the whole time, who knows how far that virus could have travelled before authorities had stopped it? And if it had spread across the world, there wouldn't be enough bleach to disinfect such a wide area. A lot of people in the military and the CDC breathed a huge sigh of relief that day.

Our Next Monster in the Closet: Black Holes

Recommended reading: The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story by Richard Preston

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Another fine entry, a good read, thanks!