As I view the cascade of news coming in on the Ebola outbreak, it leaves me scratching my head a little. Ebola is of course, an extremely lethal virus. The first outbreak that occurred in 1976 had a 90 percent mortality rate (we’re currently at 60 percent with this one). It’s also a highly contagious disease, but only through the proper channels. It isn’t an airborne virus. You have to come into direct contact with the bodily fluids of the infected to contract it yourself.
Ebola never seemed to be capable of pandemic levels of destruction. It just doesn’t have the right ingredients, so to speak. Usually viruses that kill the most people have a lower death rate, if you can believe that. It allows the victim to spread the disease for a much longer period of time. And unlike most viruses, Ebola doesn’t become contagious until you actually begin to show symptoms. Anyone within the vicinity of the victim now knows that they have to take certain precautions, so it stops spread so easily. Normal viruses will have you spreading their ilk everywhere before you or anyone else knows you’re infected. Altogether, this current outbreak is baffling, and so far, has outmatched all previous Ebola events by a large margin.
And yet, it just keeps on coming:
Doctors Without Borders said its teams are overwhelmed with new Ebola patients in Sierra Leone and that the situation in Liberia is now “dire.”
“Over the last weeks, there has been a significant surge in the epidemic – the number of cases has increased dramatically in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and the disease has spread to many more villages and towns,” the organization said in a statement. “After a lull in new cases in Guinea, there has been a resurgence in infections and deaths in the past week.”
“Surge” would be a good way to describe an affliction that historically, has never really acted in such a way. To those of you who have been following this outbreak since it began in February, it’s easy to watch the death count slowly rise without seeing what’s going on behind the numbers. I know, because until today I was guilty of that as well. I’ve read the headlines for months, and watched that death toll slowly climb, not realizing just how bad this outbreak may be. The deaths of nearly 800 people over the course of many months, while tragic, wouldn’t normally be such an alarming event. Those kinds of numbers pale in comparison to other viral outbreaks in history.
But, there is something different this time around. After looking through the CDC updates of the outbreak going back to March 25th, I noticed that the spread of this virus has been prolific, exponential, and unlike any previous event. To help visualize this, I went through CDC numbers and charted them. Below is a graph with each interval being around 1-2 weeks apart. Rather than just adding up the casualties from week to week, I decided to show the difference between the number of deaths from one interval to the next.
It looks like the Virus almost died out by the end of April, before making a huge comeback in May and June. It was almost under control, and probably would have burned out shortly thereafter. It was almost a non-event, no more serious than any other historical outbreak, but instead the virus surged into uncharted territory. We’ve never seen this many deaths spread out in so many countries. It appears to have fully escaped the ability of any government to control its spread, and is growing by leaps and bounds. We can only speculate as to how bad it’s going to get.
One thing’s for sure, there’s something different about this. I suspect that the virus has mutated a bit. Perhaps it isn’t contagious in the same way it used to be. Maybe it has gone airborne, or maybe it’s starting to become contagious before the infected show symptoms. Perhaps the slightly lower death rate is helping the virus advance, or it’s spreading so much because the outbreak didn’t occur in an isolated village as it normally has over the past 40 years. But then again, how in the hell did this virus manage to spread to the cities so quickly? So many questions we don’t have the answer to, or may never know.
Meanwhile, the authorities don’t seem too concerned. I’m skeptical of their level of awareness. They don’t seem to grasp that they may be dealing with a totally different situation this time, and the virus isn’t following the norms and rules that we expect it to. CDC director Dr. Tom Friedan has been busy assuring us that all is well, and the world outside of Africa has nothing to fear.
“The plain fact is, we can stop it. We can stop it from spreading in hospitals and we can stop it in Africa [which] is really the source of the epidemic and where we’re surging our response so that we can control it there…It’s not going to spread widely in the U.S. Could we have another person here, could we have a case or two? Not impossible. We say in medicine never say never. But we know how to stop it here,”
Sure you do Tom.