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DQ Blog

JUNE 2015. BOZEMAN, MT

One year ago at this time, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa was just emerging from a lull, a falsely reassuring hiatus, like the “phony war” that settled over Europe in 1939, after Hitler’s invasion of Poland.  During early April, 2014, there was optimism among health officials that control measures were working--in Guinea, where it had all IMG 3061begun, and in the two other affected countries, Liberia and Sierra Leone; there was guarded confidence that those efforts would soon bring the outbreak to an end.  Some of the expert responders from overseas went home, to the CDC in Atlanta and elsewhere.  Then in late May came a disconcerting surge.  The incidence of new cases rose abruptly.  Traditional funeral practices and other factors allowed the virus to spread; response efforts, facilities, and supplies turned out to be insufficient.  Sick people were traveling—across borders among the three countries, and from the countryside to towns.  By mid-June, the disease had reached Liberia’s capital, Monrovia.  You know what happened next: Instead of an end, there was a geometrical getaway, an explosion of cases, as the outbreak became an epidemic.

As of yesterday, the official count from the World Health Organization is this: 27,237 cases and 11,158 deaths.

Furthermore, the epidemic still hasn’t ended—though it has fallen below the attention threshold for most news media outside of Africa.  Liberia is presently free of Ebola cases, but Guinea and Sierra Leone are not.  In fact, during two consecutive weeks now there have been slight increases in the new case counts for Guinea and Sierra Leone.  That unnerving little trend, plus the continuing occurrence of puzzling new cases for which the source (who infected whom?) can’t be identified, “highlights the challenges” (in the careful language of the WHO) of bringing this whole gruesome chain of events to a close.

Another unnerving fact is that there’s still so much about Ebola virus disease that we don’t understand.  At the top of that list of unknowns is the identity of the reservoir host—the creature in which the virus abides, quietly, inconspicuously, when it’s not causing devastation among humans.

IMG 3006Thirty-nine years

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DECEMBER 2014. BOZEMAN, MT

As the epidemic of Ebola continues to ravage three West Africa countries, and to frighten people around the world, many scientific  questions about this disease and the ghastly microbe that causes it remain unanswered.  One of those is: What’s the reservoir host of Ebola virus, the creature in which it lives secretively over the long term?  Fabian Leendertz works on that question, and in December he published a preliminary study describing a new hypothesis.  Because I’m at work on a feature story about the reservoir question and Leendertz’s work, National Geographic asked me to write a brief post for its online news about the newly released study.

You can read that post here.

The full story, with text by me and photographs by Pete Muller, will appear in the July 2015 issue of National Geographic.

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NOVEMBER 2014. WEST AFRICA

IMG 3066The 2014 epidemic of Ebola virus disease in West Africa is unlike any Ebola event ever seen before. In fact, as of this writing, it’s already ten times larger in terms of case fatalities—ten times more punishing to Africans, ten times more scary and befuddling to people around the world—than any single outbreak of an ebolavirus (there are five kinds) during the previous known history of the disease. The peculiarly unfortunate circumstances that allowed this outbreak to simmer for months and then explode in the three countries first affected, and especially in Liberia, include weakened governance after decades of civil turmoil, inadequate health-care infrastructure, shortage of trained health-care workers and simple barrier-nursing supplies, population density and poverty in the capital cities, suspicion of Western medicine, and traditional funerary practices. Those factors, and the progress of the epidemic, have been charted in some of the best of the news coverage, including this story by Canadian reporter Helen Branswell, and this one from a team at The Washington Post.

I value such news reporting as much as anyone, but my own role as a writer is different; I cover science and science history at greater length and slower speed. Still, as the epidemic became more severe in late August, my British publisher asked me to move quickly, for a change, and draw together the sections concerning Ebola virus from my 2012 book Spillover and, by editing and rearranging them into a stand-alone structure, to create a small book that could be published promptly. I’ve done that, adding a new Introduction, and a new Epilogue about the events of 2014. The result is Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus, published by Random House in the United Kingdom in early October and by W.W. Norton in the United States on October 20. This is a book for people who are too busy, in an urgent and nervous time, or otherwise disinclined by lack of interest in the broader topic, to read Spillover. Its purpose is to give readers, including hurried news people and public officials as well as

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EBOLA: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus

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SPILLOVER: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic

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THE CHIMP AND THE RIVER: How AIDS Emerged from an African Forest