Knowing that David Quammen was such a great science writer I wanted to read his timely update about Ebola. In the introduction, Quammen acknowledges that this book is adapted from his 2012 book Spillover that I blogged about yesterday but Ebola is a much quicker read. It is still well worth reading even if you have read Spillover because of the updates. In early December as I write this, the current Ebola outbreak has killed over 6000 people (CDC – 2014 Ebola Outbreak in West Africa – Case Counts). This means that this outbreak has killed more people than all previous outbreaks combined. Quammen’s expert and readable style is very matter of fact and it paints Ebola as a terrifying and largely unknown disease, even if it doesn’t spread much to countries outside the continent of Africa. It has “a case fatality rate ranging from 60 to 75 percent. Sixty percent is extremely high for any infectious disease (except rabies); it’s probably higher, for instance, than fatalities from Bubonic plague in medieval France at the worst moments of the Black Death.”
Ebola is currently being studied furiously but there is still much that scientists don’t know. For one, they are not sure what causes “the transitory nature of the disease within human populations. It disappears entirely for years at a time. This is a mercy for public health but a constraint for science” and why “Ebola viruses barely showed themselves anywhere in Africa for fifteen years (1976-early 1980s).” Quammen concludes that “We don’t even know if the past is a reliable guide to the future–that is, to what degree history and science can illuminate the Ebola events of 2014.”
There is sobering information like, “The higher the case count goes, the greater the likelihood that Ebola virus as we know it might evolve into something better adapted to pass from human to human, something that presently exists only in our nightmares.” This is terrifying when coupled with information like “the virus was mutating prolifically and accumulating a fair degree of genetic variation as it replicated within each human case and passed from one human to another.” We can only fervently hope that Quammen’s apt metaphor doesn’t come to pass: “Every spillover is like a sweepstakes ticket… Sometimes the bettor wins big.”
Oddly, even Ebola has facts that I found quirky: apparently when an Ebola patient develops the commonly annoying but harmless condition of hiccups, it usually means death is near.
Try reading Ebola if you like the history of science and history of disease books that I mentioned yesterday. If you previously read the bestseller The Hot Zone, by Richard Preston, Ebola is a good update. Sadly, for the 6000 victims of this dread disease who have already died, and those yet to die, you may also be interested in reading Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus if you want to read about the scientific background of large events in the news.
Check the WRL catalog for Ebola.