It begins with symptoms analogous to influenza: fever, chills, sore throat, muscle aches. Nothing to worry about, right? We've all had the flu.
After that are the headaches, seizures, confusion, exhaustion, as the central nervous system comes under attack. Toward the end, you start bleeding - from the eyes, the nose, the mouth, the anus, the vagina, the skin - and every drop of blood that leaves your body is loaded with the virus that is killing you, in search of a new host to burn down. One by one, your organs fail, your body drowns within itself, and you're gone.
That is Ebola, for close to 90 percent of the people who contract it. It gestates within you for thirteen to twenty-five days before it sinks its teeth into you, so you have from two weeks to almost a month to spread it around - sexual contact is the easiest way, but there are others - before it takes you over. For those first two weeks, you have no idea that you are a ticking bomb.
The worst Ebola outbreak in recorded history is currently burning through several countries in Africa. It began in Guinea back in February. By the end of May, it had spread to the capital, Conakry, a city of some two million people. The disease was found in several counties in Liberia by the end of March, and in Sierra Leone by the end of May. Days ago, a case of Ebola was discovered in Nigeria, carried by a man from Liberia who arrived by airplane in the city of Lagos, which has almost 20 million residents. The man died not long after his arrival, and a resurgence of the disease has since been reported in both Guinea and Liberia.
Under normal circumstances, Ebola is transmitted through contact. The blood of an infected host is rife with the virus, an infected patient bleeds profusely at the end stage of the disease, and the burial rituals in the regions most impacted involve extensive contact with the body. This - along with local superstitions and a deep distrust of doctors - explains why the disease has been spreading so quickly:
Health workers here say they are now battling two enemies: the unprecedented Ebola epidemic, which has killed more than 660 people in four countries since it was first detected in March, and fear, which has produced growing hostility toward outside help. On Friday alone, health authorities in Guinea confirmed 14 new cases of the disease.
Workers and officials, blamed by panicked populations for spreading the virus, have been threatened with knives, stones and machetes, their vehicles sometimes surrounded by hostile mobs. Log barriers across narrow dirt roads block medical teams from reaching villages where the virus is suspected. Sick and dead villagers, cut off from help, are infecting others.
Health officials say the epidemic is out of control, moving back and forth across the porous borders of Guinea and neighboring Sierra Leone and Liberia - often on the backs of the cheap motorcycles that ply the roads of this region of green hills and dense forest - infiltrating the lively open-air markets, overwhelming weak health facilities and decimating villages.
There is no known cure for the virus, which causes raging fever, vomiting, diarrhea and uncontrolled bleeding in about half the cases and up to 90 percent of the time, rapid death. Merely touching an infected person, or the body of a victim, is dangerous; coming into contact with blood, vomit or feces can be deadly.
Now the fear of aid workers, principally from Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross, is helping to spread the disease, health officials say, creating a secondary crisis. Villagers flee at the sight of a Red Cross truck. When a Westerner passes, villagers cry out, "Ebola, Ebola!" and run away.
Two American doctors who have been working to contain the outbreak have contracted the disease. Samuel Brisbane, one of Liberia's most well-respected doctors, has been killed by it. All three were taking enormous precautions, obeying every rule pertaining to the handling of an extreme biohazard, yet still got sick.
There are some who fear the disease can now be transmitted through the air, which would not only explain the rapid spread of this new outbreak, but would also explain how three trained doctors taking every available precaution also became infected.
I think of that, and remember the man from Liberia carrying the disease who arrived by plane in Lagos. I think of all the people who shared that plane with him, and wonder where they are now. I think of this disease infiltrating densely-populated cities in Guinea, Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and all the attached airports that connect to more large cities and more airports, and I remember that the disease sits and waits, sits and waits, sits and waits for two weeks before mimicking the flu, before it explodes. I remember that as many as nine out of ten people do not survive exposure.
The book The Hot Zone, published in 1994, explains in graphic detail what this disease is capable of, and what can happen if it gets loose in the high-traffic international air routes that wrap the planet like a web. Someone once said that a lie can be halfway around the world before the truth puts its pants on. In this instance, Ebola can be strolling blithely through Laguardia, or O'Hare, or LAX, before anyone is the wiser...and if the theory that this disease has become airborne has any validity, that scenario presents a crisis of unprecedented proportions.
We live, here in America, in an age where it is expected that nothing gets done. At this moment, the only groups working to curtail this Ebola outbreak are Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross, and a few Christian missionary organizations. The local medical facilities and staff in the affected countries are woefully inadequate to the task.
In the strongest possible terms, I suggest the Centers for Disease Control, along with any and all pertinent Federal and state agencies, pool their resources and go to Africa as soon as possible. I suggest Congress write them a check sufficient to fund what will doubtless be a highly dangerous medical rescue/research operation. I suggest other nations with sufficient medical capabilities join in this endeavor.
This disease likes to travel, and the first case that pops up in New York or Chicago, thanks to a plane flight, will have the whole country wearing surgical masks behind closed doors. If we're lucky.
Remember the anthrax panic after 9/11? People picking up their mail with oven mitts? That was paranoia. This is all too real, and must be addressed immediately.