Conquering Plague One Disease at a Time

New Ebola Vaccine Gives 100 Percent Protection” by Donald G. McNeil Jr., The New York Times, Dec 22, 2016.

This story filled me with a wondrous hope. I used both Ebola and its cousin Marburg in my book, Independence Day Plague, so I had researched these haemorrhagic diseases thoroughly. Horrible is an understatement. Not only are they deadly but kill the person in an incredibly painful way. They cause the body to partially liquefy inside. Bruising rises under the skin. The patients are in agony as blood seems to leak out of every orifice and they weep blood tinted tears. The average death rate is 50% but some outbreaks rise as high as 90%. If a person survives, they are usually permanently injured.

In my book, one immune man watches as his family succumbs to Ebola. He is helpless as they beg for relief from the pain. Finally, he has no option but to “grant mercy,” or euthanize them to allow them to pass away peacefully. Imagine what that could do to your mind if you had to kill off your family.

By causing the body to bleed profusely, the virus is most likely to attack first responders first, such as police, firemen, and medical professionals, simply because their exposure rate is higher. Take away the health and safety people, and the death toll skyrockets.

Until 2014, Ebola stayed pretty much in the remote parts of Africa. Scientists believed it kept cropping up in these places due to the presence of bats. As a blood-transmitted virus, people became contaminated when they tried to help the sick or clean and bury the dead. This meant the disease could kill whole families in some villages. It only was stopped when experts in hazmat gear flew in, isolated the sick and safely cleaned up the blood.

In 2014, the most massive outbreak to date occurred, crossing three countries: Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. In that outbreak, the disease spread by air travel, increasing the chance of it going anywhere in the world.

So imagine this disease in a vacation resort or inside the person next to you as you fly home from an international trip. Blood-borne diseases are harder to pass around as compared to air-borne but not impossible. Our world’s interconnectedness, a boon for so many other aspects, makes global plagues more of a reality.

Also, remember that most virus diseases can’t be “cured.” You can eat as many antibiotic medicines as you want but they won’t touch viruses. Bacteria, which are always alive, are killed with antibiotics. Viruses sit on the edge of life and nonlife, only being able to reproduce when their genetic material invades and takes over the reproductive processes of a cell. We do have some anti-viral medicines now but they are more like a scattershot attempt rather than a true cure. Doctors can treat a viral disease’s symptoms but often the best solution is through protection from ever getting the disease. Thus, the best hope for conquering Ebola is developing an effective vaccine.

The other blessing about vaccines is that they can lead to the total destruction of a plague. For instance, small pox was declared eradicated from the planet by the World Health Organization in 1980 due to a global vaccination program. In a localized outbreak of a viral disease, vaccinating everyone at risk stops any epidemic before it ever leaves the area.

For now, the dark specter of pestilence is being thwarted again. This fact alone is worth taking pause and quietly cheering for humanity. Although the vaccine currently only works against one common strain of Ebola, it is still a shining light of hope for the future. Usually when one scientist discovers a method for one strain, other refinements can stop the other strains. Hopefully that is the case here and one day Ebola will be gone forever.


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