Bozeman resident, former MSU professor and award-winning author David Quammen delivered a lecture, titled “Ebola and Scary Viruses in a Globalized World,” on March 26. Every seat in the newly renovated SUB ballroom was filled and the surplus of attendees utilized the standing room only space as Quammen discussed the Ebola outbreak as well as other viruses that could affect the future of the human population.
Quammen began his lecture by discussing elements of the most recent Ebola outbreak which began in 2013 and has not yet ended. The outbreak started in a small village in Southeastern Guinea when a two-year-old boy died of what was thought to be a fever. Unfortunately, children dying of fevers is not uncommon in remote African villages, and it wasn’t until other members of the boy’s family, village and surrounding villages also died of the virus that the cause was identified as Ebola. The virus has been most deadly in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, killing over 10,400 people according to the Center for Disease Control. Porous borders and insufficient health care systems accelerated the outbreak as did unsafe burial practices. Infectious Ebola virus lingers on the skin of its victims for several days after they have died, and many burial crews wore only kitchen gloves and cloth aprons.
Fear of Ebola spread quickly, in large part due to the media coverage. “The news media in this country and a lot of other places went just a little bit crazy,” Quammen said. “There was too much fear, there was too much selfish worry about the question of whether it was going to come and get us and there was not enough attention to the broader picture.”
This broader picture includes where, beyond the small village in Guinea, the virus comes from. Ebola is a zoonotic disease meaning it originates in animals but is transmissible to humans. “They remind of us the connectedness between humans and other species,” he said.
The origin of the Ebola virus is still unknown although currently scientists are testing bats found in a hollow tree in the small village of Guinea to see if they carry Ebola. Working on a story for National Geographic about Ebola, Quammen has traveled to Africa twice since last November.
Quammen discussed how the Ebola outbreak raised questions about other possible deadly viruses and the likelihood of other pandemics occuring. According to him, as humans continue to spread to new, previously uninhabited areas, people are coming in closer contact with factors that can spread these zoonotic diseases.
Quammen suggested that viruses like Ebola may be nature’s response to an overpopulated world. He compared the human population to tent caterpillars. Tent caterpillars experience an explosion in their population for a period of time, and then suddenly a disease wipes a large portion of them out. “From this perspective, the most serious outbreak on the planet earth is that of the species homo sapiens,” he said.
Many factors determine how deadly the next viral outbreak like Ebola may be.
Quammen is the author of several books including “Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus.” He is also a contributing writer for National Geographic and wrote a column for 15 years at Outside Magazine.