by bob rodriguez
Addressing the worst ebola epidemic in history with an eye toward the possibility of it spreading worldwide from West Africa to countries including the United States and becoming a pandemic, a noted author opened his talk at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody with, “I’m going to scare the bejesus out of you.”
However, David Quammen somewhat couched that comment by adding that he really “wants to leave the Jesus in.” But he continued that with what “seems to be a steady drumbeat of scary new viruses” his presentation would be “a grim talk with a happy ending.” A capacity crowd of some 161 persons attended on Monday night, Oct. 13. Quammen was invited to the Buffalo Bill Center by longtime friend Chuck Preston, senior curator at the center and founding curator in charge of its Draper Natural History Museum and Greater Yellowstone Raptor Experience.
Quammen has spent years traveling the globe, researching emerging viruses and the people who study them. These viruses, he said, are officially known as zoonotic viruses, as they live in an animal host and occasionally jump to or “spill over” into human beings. “Spillover,” his 2012 book on the topic, won an award from the National Association of Science Writers. He told the audience that proceeds from the Cody evening will be donated to Doctors Without Borders. He has written 15 other books and is the author of the timely forthcoming book, “Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus.” He’s in the Cody area working on a special issue of “National Geographic” magazine examing the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
During the 45-minute program, including 10 minutes of questions and answers, the speaker opined that the ebola epidemic “is a global problem.” He said that the “scope of aid” by several countries including the United States to curtail the outbreak “is not a 10th of what is needed” and that the “new ebola virus seems to be on the move.” Most recently there have been 8,400 cases of ebola in W. Africa with more than 4,000 deaths. In this country there has been one ebola death, on Oct. 8 in Dallas, Texas, of a man who flew there after contracting the ailment. And there have been a number of possible cases in various states since then.
Not including ebola, various major viral outbreaks in the past have been caused by hosts including bats, a single chimpanzee, and rats and fleas, but, “The ebola host is unknown,” Quammen stated.
The key to ending the epidemic among Africans “for whom he has great sympathy,” said Quammen, “is to isolate it in W. Africa and we can’t close the borders in both directions to accomplish that.” He added that a tremendous amount of money needs to be allocated for resources including care centers along with top-notch medical expertise and other personnel plus necessary medical equipment and protective gear.
It is known that humans can be infected by other humans if they come in contact with body fluids from an infected person or contaminated objects from infected persons. Humans can also be exposed to the virus, for example, by butchering infected animals. Quammen explained that some 60 percent of infectious diseases that caused significant numbers of fatalities, including the 1918 Spanish Flu, the 1957 Asian Flu and the 2009 Swine Flu, were caused by zoonosis.
To help understand the question of how worried should we be regarding ebola, first discovered in 1976, becoming a pandemic, he referred to mathematical models created by the University of Chicago’s Dr. Greg Dwyer, associate professor in the Department of Ecology & Evolution Committee working on evolutionary biology in the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division. Dwyer has conducted significant studies on “outbreak populations” of gypsy moths and what determines resistance to viruses and their transmission. Using a baculovirus that attacks the moths he’s found that baculoviruses are transmitted when larvae (tent caterpillars) accidentally consume leaves contaminated with other virus-killed larvae, “and so both the feeding behavior of larvae and the chemical composition of foliage can affect transmission. In fact, gypsy moth larvae are known to avoid virus-contaminated foliage, and we have shown that this behavior is inheritable.”
It comes down to the fact “that we are smarter than tent caterpillars,” observed Qaummen. “Yes, there are seven billion of us humans and we are an outbreak population.” But in his association with Dwyer, who carefully considered Quammen’s question as to whether as such, humans are heading for a major epidemic or pandemic, his studied answer was “No.” Noted Quammen, “We can change course” in the face of such situations. “We can adjust and understand threats and take steps to protect ourselves.”
He concluded his appearance with a comment that he is hopeful that “something will be coming down the road soon” with regard to noteworthy treatment protocols for ebola patients and development of a specific vaccine.