EbolaVirus Disease (EVD) made its debut in 1976, devastating unsuspecting communities in the countries of Sudan the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). Up close, doctors mistakenly first identified it as a malarial epidemic, although they could not determine what was wreaking havoc on their patient’s bodies. On the surface, many of the afflicted persons presented with symptoms similar to those of malaria: high fevers, stomach cramps, nausea, and vomiting. At the time, doctors working in these affected communities had access to Quinine, normally administered to those affected by malaria. Unfortunately, this type of approach did not seem to help, and these doctors quickly discovered that, despite their best efforts, their ailing patients suffered violent, often gruesome deaths, at a rate of up to 90 percent. For these patients, the up close and personal nature of Ebola turned deadly.
Many appeared to be suffering from internal bleeding, and with each new case of this wide-spread fever came the growing concern that this was perhaps not malaria, but something else. As people were falling ill and dying at alarming rates, public health professionals rushed to identify this new, invisible killer as it continued to silently stalk its way through the two countries, indiscriminately taking lives.
The deadly fever quickly slipped through central and west Africa, quietly evading detection, closing in and invading nearby communities. The situation was becoming exponentially worse, it seemed, and it needed to be contained. The World Health Organization (WHO), the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and other public health organizations jumped into action, desperately searching for the origin of the epidemic as the pool of infected persons continued to rise. These infections were not malarial, they determined, and the new and elusive stalker needed a name. The virus received one, its namesake originating from the spot in which it first sprouted: the Ebola River.
It has been 38 years, and the nature of the Ebola virus continues to remain mysterious. Because handling it is so dangerous, biologists and epidemiologists only work with the highly infectious specimens while physically shielded in a laboratory environment, under strict observation. In the last few decades of research, this is what scientists have uncovered about Ebola, warily sliding into their Haz-Mat suits, getting up close and personal with the deadly virus:
Five known stands of Ebola exist, and most, if not all versions share several key characteristics, shedding light onto an otherwise invisible threat. On the surface, Ebola has a knot, or “capsid,” at one end of its filament, giving it an alien-like appearance. Scientists have also identified proteins on its surface, which might play a part in the virus’s replication process. However, unlike human cellular proteins which number in the tens of thousands, the Ebola virus has just a few. While many viruses have a clear method for injecting its genetic code into a host cell, Ebola’s modus operandi remains unclear.
In many known viral transmissions, a virus will cozy up to a healthy cell, attach itself to the surface, and inject its own genetic code for replication. As the infected cell deteriorates, the viral proteins are released into the body, allowing them to move swiftly and easily to other healthy, unsuspecting cells. As it stands, it is assumed (although not confirmed), that Ebola may use this process, too. Regrettably because of its elusive and inflammatory nature, the virus spreads quickly, leaving scientists scrambling to keep tabs on each new outbreak.
Additionally, the exact origin of its host is ambiguous. Currently, scientists look to the African fruit bat as the culprit; the tiny creature is known to carry the virus without becoming infected. These two factors are strong indicators that it may be the true host, giving these enterprising medical professionals another lead on filling in the virus’s complex profile. The fruit bat, however, is not officially confirmed and crowned host. Researchers still entertain the possibility of another animal or insect as the original carrier; with a virus as mysterious as Ebola, it is better to keep multiple theories open, until they can safely be ruled out.
After decades of life-threatening research, it is no wonder that Ebola remains shrouded in mystery. Its horror-movie effect on the human body is terrifying, both repelling and engaging the world’s attention. Despite the fact that scientists can now see the virus up close and personal, the swift and highly infectious nature of Ebola still keeps them—and the rest of the world—in the dark. In this respect, these professionals in the public health community have only just begun to scratch the surface of Ebola’s deep and deadly secrets.
By Hayden Freed