It’s only just come into the public consciousness, and it’s hard not to see the reaction to the disease in Western countries as a bit over the top. Even in West Africa – the region worst hit with a staggering 5,000 deaths – malaria, AIDS and starvation have still killed more people since this latest Ebola outbreak began. But you can’t catch malaria or starvation from other people, and maybe we as a society still attach a moral stigma to AIDS, so they’re somehow less immediate.
Amid the swirling, hysterical headlines (“ARE WE READY TO DEAL WITH EBOLA?”) and for those of us who read Outbreak in the 90′s, the reality of the disease is often forgotten, and we see instead a by-product of our own fears. Contagion, spread by black people – it’s coming to white countries! I think (and this is just my opinion, but hey, you’re reading it), that our reaction to this epidemic is endemic of some inherent racism, but that’s a subject for another article.
Ebola is a weird virus, one that kills most people who are unfortunate enough to contract it, even with treatment. But the world has seen plenty of more dangerous diseases, and certainly some weirder ones, too. Maybe the reaction to Ebola is a reflection of our collective memories of the way that AIDS burst onto the scene, with patients wasting away to nothingness. But it’s got a long way to go before its fatality rate approaches that of AIDS, or of the Spanish Flu, which in the early 20th century killed an estimated 50 to 100 million people, straight after the First World War accounted for 16 million.
Or the Bubonic Plague, which, in the first recorded (Western) outbreak in the Byzantine Empire (6th century AD), killed approximately 50 million, and then went on, in the 14th and 15th century, to ravage Europe, Asia and the Middle East, killing about a third of the population. The Bubonic Plague still rears its head, with an average of 7 cases in the United States, and up to 2,000 cases worldwide reported each year.
Or Smallpox, which, coming from Europe with the Spanish invaders, (80-90% of the population died) or in the deliberately infected blankets handed out to Native American populations by the United States government:
“…we gave them two Blankets and an Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect.” – William Trent, a trader in Fort Pitt, in 1763, which was then under siege by the Delaware tribe.
There’s actually a former Soviet research facility in the Aral Sea that cannot be accessed, as the Soviets accidentally released Smallpox there in 1971.
These diseases have a high mortality rate and are highly viral, although they can often be cured if medical intervention arrives in a timely fashion (plague, for instance, can be treated with common antibiotics.) There are, however, some weird diseases we can be grateful that we haven’t seen in a long time:
The Dancing Plague of 1518 is one that springs to mind. In Strasbourg, Alsace, a woman (Frau Troffea) began to dance in the streets, and within a week another thirty four had joined her. Within a month, the number was at four hundred. They died, of heart attack, exhaustion or of stroke. As the plague worsened, the authorities began to get desperate, and in the mistaken belief that the afflicted had to dance the illness away, opened the guildhalls, built a wooden stage, and paid musicians to play for the dancers (which usually encouraged others to join in.) The first case of St Vitus’s Dance, as it was called, is recorded in the 7th century. It broke out in Aachen, Germany, in 1347, and thousands danced, before the disease began to spread, being reported as far afield as Italy and England. During the 13th century a large group of children danced from Erfurt to Arnstadt, a distance of twenty kilometers, accompanied by musicians. This is where we get the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. Historians believe that the outbreaks were a form of mass psychogenic illness, although it has been argued that it may have been a form of Chorea, a neurological disorder, or ergot poisoning.
Mass psychogenic illnesses are interesting, as they still happen today, all over the globe. The Salem Witch Trials are believed to have been a case of mass hysteria, as was the less-tragic Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic, during which the girls at a boarding school in Tanzania began to laugh, and symptoms were reported to last up to sixteen days. When the school was closed (March 18, 1962), the students were sent home, many to a village called Nshamba, were suddenly 217 people were infected, before another girls’ school was afflicted, leading to 48 more cases. In Blackburn, England, in 1965, in Malaysia in the 70s and 80s, in the West Bank, in Mexico, in New York State, Brunei, Sri Lanka, the list of mass hysterias goes on.
Syphilis is still with us, still trying to ruin the one thing that’s both fun and free, and is also a pretty good source of exercise. Arising from the Columbian Exchange (we gave them Smallpox and Measles, they gave us Syphilis), the disease may have caused more than 5 million deaths in Europe as returning Spanish soldiers moved on to other wars, notably the invasion of Italy in 1495. While now Syphilis is treatable (but wear a condom, kids) with penicillin, there was no treatment in the 15th century. The disease was much more deadly then than now, as the bacteria has evolved to be less virulent. Pustules covered the body from the head to the knees, skin and flesh on the face literally fell off (the nose, most prominently), and death occurred within in a few months. It’s still dangerous – it can lead to dementia, aneurysms and tumor-like inflammations under the skin.
The English Sweat, or Sweating Sickness was a disease that swept England and Ireland in the 15th century, and eventually spread to Switzerland, Lithuania, Norway and Russia in the 16th century. It was noted for the extremely quick way that it killed its victims (within 24 hours), and for its symptoms (a sudden sense of apprehension, cold shivers, giddiness, headache and great exhaustion. This was known as ‘the cold stage’, and was followed by ‘the hot stage’, during which sweat broke out on the body, followed by a feeling of intense heat and thirst, heart palpitations and an irresistible urge to sleep). First occurring immediately after Henry VII took the throne of England, it was seen as an incredibly bad omen. Thousands died in this first outbreak, including Henry’s son, Arthur, which led to Henry VIII’s eventual succession.
Kuru is another illness like Syphilis, which still occurs, but is not nearly as prevalent as it once was. It is, however, untreatable, and very difficult to contract. Basically, you need to cannibalize someone with the disease. Believed to be a form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (the human version of Mad Cow Disease), the last known sufferer died in 2005, as the practice of cannibalism has died out amongst the Fore people of the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. The disease has been known, however, to have an incubational period of up to 40 years, so we may still see some cases. The disease is characterized by violent shaking, general weakness, and occasional bouts of laughter. It is for this reason known as laughing sickness.
Are we prepared for Ebola? I think so, especially in the West, where we have access to top notch medical systems, and the information and trust necessary to allow the medical system to get on top of it. More doctors are needed for West Africa, though, as not only have a large number of doctors in countries like Liberia contracted and died of Ebola, but their medical system is not robust enough to handle the situation.
If you can, consider donating to an organization like Medicine sans Frontieres. They do good work, and the people of West Africa need your help. And, if you need a more selfish reason, maybe beating Ebola now will stop it spreading to your country.