Since Mabalo Lokela, a 44-year-old school teacher from the Democratic Republic of Congo, contracted the first recorded case of Ebola in 1976, the disease has been a scourge on African life. For every case of Ebola we know about, there could be as many as 6 other cases we don’t know about, just waiting to reveal themselves.
Serious outbreaks of the disease have occurred in Africa, and smaller isolated cases have been observed in Europe and the United States of America. But what if the disease went truly international and infected the world? Is there a chance the virus could become airborne and strike out into new territories? Should we be worried? That’s what we’ll find out, in this episode of The Infographics Show – What would happen if Ebola infected the whole world?
There have already been almost 29,000 cases of Ebola with almost 11,000 deaths, according to the World Health Organization report of May 2017. Deadly human outbreaks have been confirmed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, South Sudan, Uganda, the Ivory Coast, the Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Fatal cases have been recorded in Mali, Nigeria, and the United States. Non-fatal cases have been recorded in Italy, Senegal, Spain, and the UK. According to a Vice article in 2014, some of the world’s top Ebola experts are worrying night and day about the advent of a worldwide Ebola epidemic.
Ebola is a high fatality rate virus. There are five strains of the virus, one of which can cause severe illness, sometimes fatal, in humans and animals. Ebola’s choice animal host is thought to be the humble fruit bat. Symptoms of the virus include vomiting, fever, weakness, diarrhea and stomach aches. In about half of these cases, patients have been reported to have bled from their orifices. Some of the infected may also experience chest pain, sore throat, a rash, red-eyes, and difficulty breathing. There’s an incubation period of around 10-20 days before symptoms can be observed. The virus is named after the Ebola River, where the disease was first recorded. Although being extremely infectious, Ebola isn’t terribly contagious as the virus is not transmitted through the air.
Humans can only become infected if they come into contact with bodily fluids or contaminated objects. Although it is possible that somebody could be infected by an infected person sneezing on them, this is unlikely, as sufferers of Ebola do not have flu-like symptoms, like coughing and sneezing. For the disease to go truly international, it would have to mutate and go airborne. Examples of other airborne diseases are measles, chickenpox, and influenza.
So, let’s take a look at how the disease might spread to other countries. The most likely way for Ebola to cross borders is inside a person on an airplane. Remember that the incubation period can last up to 3 weeks, and during that time, the infected shows no symptoms and is not infectious. So a person may be able to take a flight, find new dwellings in a new city, and start a new job in his or her host country, before symptoms are visible and the person is infectious.
Now Ebola doesn’t spread through the air, so the only way that Ebola could spread in this new environment is if someone were to touch the infected person’s sweat, vomit, diarrhea, saliva or blood, which is kinda of icky. In a developed country, the symptoms would be recognized by a health official who would look at the symptoms and the person’s latest passport stamp. If his or her country is one that has had an outbreak of Ebola, the patient would be treated in isolation, and necessary steps would be taken to make sure the virus doesn’t spread. This is why the isolated cases of Ebola in developed countries have been minimalized. In the countries where outbreaks have occurred, there are usually public hygiene and sanitation issues, and this, along with the limited accessibility to medical facilities, clean water, and effective infrastructure, lead to outbreaks occurring in these regions.
Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research at Minnesota University, Michael Osterholm, published an open editorial in the New York Times arguing that Ebola becoming airborne is a real risk that virologists don’t like to talk about publicly. “If certain mutations occurred”, the scientist pointed out, “just breathing would put one at risk of contracting Ebola. Infections could spread quickly to every part of the globe.” And he has a case. The Ebola virus does mutate, or change, fairly frequently, but has not yet acquired the ability to spread through air.
Genetic mutations are random, some may not cause any noticeable differences, and other changes might render the virus nonfunctional rather than more deadly. For the disease to become airborne, it would require a series of mutations to happen in an exact order. And even if it were to become airborne, it may lose the ability to infect people or to cause such deadly symptoms. Osterholm, in his op-ed, recalled a 2012 Canadian study where pigs that were infected with the Ebola virus passed the disease to monkeys caged nearby. The animals had no contact with each other, proving, allegedly, that the virus could be spread by the respiratory route. So whether or not the disease really spreads is a bit of a scientific crapshoot.
How would the world react if the disease started to mutate and spread at an accelerated level? Airports would become more vigorous with the checking of the disease. Leaving the port of an infected area would become difficult. Quarantines would be set up for those suspected of having the disease in the incubation stage. Countries might tighten their immigration rules and not permit entrance of citizens from infected areas. Human Rights activists would argue, correctly, that people have the right to travel.
Certain groups in society may choose to isolate themselves and wait out any epidemic underground or on islands. Individuals may exercise survival techniques acquired through watching zombie apocalypse television shows. The most important thing to remember, however, is that Ebola has an incubation period of up to 3 weeks, and then the symptoms last for another week or so. It all happens very fast. If the infected and the uninfected are kept separate for a month, the epidemic would pass relatively quickly. The world would return to normal, until the next medical pandemic came along.