Ebola hemorrhagic fever (Ebola HF) is a severe, often-fatal disease in humans and nonhuman primates (monkeys and chimpanzees) that has appeared sporadically since its initial recognition in 1976. It can be transmitted to humans by direct contact with infected live or dead animals, and more specifically with their body fluid. Its infectious nature and deadly affect on human makes it something to be reckoned with. This paper compares and contrasts the effects of the Bubonic Plague vs. the Ebola Virus and its impact on humans if there were to be an outbreak in a vastly populated area.
The Ebola Virus
During the Dark Ages a plague swept through Asia and Europe killing millions of people; at the time it was unstoppable with a unique set of hosts. The plague, later named “The Black Death” became one of the greatest catastrophes humanity has ever witnessed. Its predominance was mainly due to the lack of knowledge about sanitation and knowledge about the plague’s common hosts. Later in the late 20th century an outbreak occurred in Africa that killed at an alarmingly rapid rate, wiping out whole villages. It was later discovered that it was caused by a mutated virus that infected animals and was able to jump species. This epidemic also became a major problem in the world for its time. In a modern setting with such a large and close population, with such a wide span of mass global transportation, as we have today, the Ebola virus would be a more devastating epidemic than the plague if both were re-introduced into society. The history of the Bubonic Plague has proven to be a convoluted one. It all started when an Italian merchant ship was returning from China where the plague was already omnipresent. When the ship landed at its location, the bacteria quickly spread sparking off the beginning of an epidemic.
The Bubonic Plague had two unique carriers; one being the common rat that used to be frequently found on trade ships, and the other being the fleas found on rats, which could jump from the rats to humans. Both of these carriers were widespread in ancient society (14th century). The epidemic spread all over Europe by these means of transportation but slowed down at Germany due to their good hygiene. The history of the Ebola virus is much more modern. The first outbreak of Ebola was in Zaire (1976) with a kill rate of 88% and infecting 314 people. It was believed that the onset of the outbreak originated from a monkey that was carrying the virus and attacked a woodsman, transferring it to him. The virus’s main means of transportation is through contact with the already infected. Although large organizations like the Center for Disease Control (C.D.C.) went to try and stop the spread of the virus, it continued to infect large amounts of people. Infection occurred even with great public awareness and drastic quarantine techniques.
After the virus killed itself out, it reappeared in Sudan the same year. It again was believed to originate from monkeys. Though this strain was much less potent with only a 55% kill rate, it proved to be unstoppable until the virus killed itself out (The term “killed itself out” is used because the virus will kill all of its potential hosts in an area so it can no longer infect anyone or anything, literally ‘killing itself out’.) It reappeared in Sudan In 1979. Another strain of the virus was found in Virginia, Texas. This strain was a highly infectious one, but was not able to fully jump species from monkey to human. The virus killed every monkey in the quarantine but did not spread due to the drastic measures taken by the C.D.C., which included incinerating everything in the building including the infected monkeys, filling the building with ammonia gas, and quarantining the four infected humans. The Black plague’s scientific background is not very complex. The strain was only changed once and minutely. The properties of the plague and its infectious habits did not change. The plague was commonly found in rats and was often found aboard ships, especially trade ships due to their abundance of food. These rats had the bacterium in their blood. Fleas that commonly were found on the rats were the way that the bacterium would jump from the rat to the human.
The flea would suck blood from the rat and ingest the bacterium that would then grow in their digestive system. When their digestive system was full of bacteria it would then move its way up to the head of the flea and infect its blood sucking needle. When the flea moves from the rat to the human it would thus infect the human. The infection started with an egg size boil at the location that the flea would bite at and would then move either to the blood stream causing death quickly or would move to the lungs giving the infected a pneumonia-like symptoms killing them within a week. Due to the time in human history when the plague struck, human’s had no idea how to stop it or what caused it. In a modern setting any bacterium would be quickly identified and an antigen would be synthetically produced to help fight the infection. As well we would be able to fight the bacterium using medicines that were not around during the period that the plague struck Europe and Asia. The world has also improved on sanitation since the time.
Germany didn’t get struck very hard from the plague due to their laws that made Germany a more sanitary society. Germany at the time practiced a level of sanitation that is easily not as advanced as almost any culture in the world today. Ebola’s scientific background is more complex due to the fact that it can mutate at a very fast rate. The first outbreak in Zaire had mutated from a virus that only infected monkeys to an airborne version that infected humans as well. The viruses’ infection starts as a common cold then hits the blood stream. Once in the blood stream, it targets an organ that produces chemicals that hold the bonds between cells in other organs that keep the organs shape and structure. The virus then breaks apart bonds that hold cells together in organs. The infected organs in essence turn to mush and skin (being an organ) seeps body fluids from its pores and weak points like the eyes. The next stage of the infection cycle (called “crash and burn”*) induces violent convulsions and violent coughing.
This would send body fluids containing the virus flying in all directions enabling it to move from person to person by infecting a large area around the convulsing victim. The next stage is death. This would all happen in a matter of days. One of the reasons Ebola is so hard to contain is because it can survive in a dead body for weeks. Due to the fact that as humans, we feel a need to take care of our deceased, infection can occur in people that are trying to bury the bodies of the infected or people living in the same place or area as an infected person. The main reason that the Ebola virus was so unsuccessful at killing large numbers of people was because it killed so quickly that it would kill most of the village. The term “Crash and Burn” was a term coined by Richard Preston, author of the book “The Hot Zone”. The term is used to describe the stage of the Ebola infection when the infected goes into convolutions and their body temperature increases dramatically. This is the final stage before death. Like HIV it can mutate at an amazing rate making it impossible to create a vaccine to fight it. Due to these reasons if it were to infect a large populace that lived reasonably close together, like India, the result would be devastating because the virus would not have enough room to kill itself out.
The number of people that have died as a result of the Bubonic plague is in the millions. In Europe alone, it has claimed millions of lives. It is believed that the population of Europe in 1345 was 83 million and by 1400 the population was down to 60 million. Most of these deaths were caused by the plague. As civilization advanced, and people became more aware of being sanitary, the infection rate was much lower till it one day nearly disappeared. Outbreaks still occurred, but were less devastating and less frequent. The last occurrence of the Black plague being transmitted from rats to humans was in 1929 in Los Angeles killing 31 of the 32 infected. The Japanese in W.W.II used it as a biological weapon against the Chinese but proved to be an unsuccessful weapon, possibly due to the Chinese having a more advanced hygiene system then they had when the plague was more prevalent in the past. The first outbreak of Ebola was in Zaire. It was perhaps one of the most deadly, killing 318 people with a mortality rate of 88%.
After killing itself out, it re-emerged in Sudan in 1976. The Ebola Sudan strain (same strain as Zaire but with mutation) killed 284 with a mortality rate of 53% and again in 1979 infecting 34 people. Ebola Zaire re-emerged in the Congo killing 315 people with a mortality rate of 81%. Ebola Sudan also re-emerged in 2000-2001 killing 425 with a mortality rate of 53%. It is hard to point a finger at what these outbreaks were originally caused by or who their original carriers were. Monkeys are a known carrier due to the 1989 Reston outbreak that killed all of the monkeys in the quarantine laboratory, but many other animals such as birds and lizards are known to carry the disease as well. This makes it almost impossible to stop the original transmission of the virus from animal to human due to the wide variety of possible carriers and their wide spread abundance around the south western part of the world. The major reason that the plague would have trouble becoming a major problem in a modern setting is the fact that it is a bacterium.
Bacteria responds to antibiotics and the human immune system has an easy time identifying it as infectious due to their physical size, and can more easily produce antigens to fight the bacteria. Due to the fact that a bacterium is living, acting and responding to stimulus in the way all living things do, it can be more easily targeted by modern medicine. Bacteria tend to die at lower levels of stimulus extremity as well take a lot longer time evolve then virus although they will evolve with time modern medical science can keep up with it. The bubonic plague bacteria has been know mutate into different strains to but has not undergone any major mutations that would change it enough to stop responding to current medical treatments that would be used against it. Bacteria are too responsive to stimulus, and would not be able evolve faster than modern science thus in a modern setting it would not be able to become a major epidemic. The reason that Ebola would be able to become a major problem in a modern environment is that it is a virus, a unique virus that uses speed and aggression to kill its victims. Being a virus it does not take on all of the characteristics of living beings.
They do not have a response to stimuli nor do they reproduce by themselves. Viruses do not respond to any antibiotics thus taking one more weapon modern science could use against it. How do people survive then? When the virus is attacked by the human immune system, the virus can be weakened or destroyed. Consequently the immune system can then produce antigens that latch onto the virus’s shell making it easily identified. Unfortunately, the virus tends to kill the victims before the immune system can start that process, using speed as a weapon. The Ebola virus, furthermore has a tendency to mutate very quickly and mutate in dramatic ways; changing its shape and the way it can affect people. It has been known to mutate from a strictly infectious disease that can only be transferred by direct contact with contaminated body fluids to a more deadly version that is airborne.
Hence, because of its lack of response to stimuli and ability to mutate at an alarmingly quick rate, it would be able to change faster, as stay ahead of modern science. The main points to be brought out are that the world has become a much more sanitary one. One of the main reasons that Europe had fallen victim to the plague was due to bad living conditions and a lack of common sanitation. The Black Death also has know and identified carriers that transfer the bacterium from animal to human, making it more simple to eradicate the hosts. Ebola, on the other hand, does not have a list of known hosts and if it did it would be a long list, making it hard or impossible to eradicate the hosts. The infection cycle of the Bubonic plague has many weak points where modern medical science could intervene, whereas Ebola has a fast and efficient infection cycle that would be much harder to tamper with. The bubonic plague’s lack of ability to mutate quickly only adds to the conclusion that the Ebola virus would result in far more devastation then an outbreak of the Black Plague.
* CDC Ebola Fact Sheet: http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvrd/spb/mnpages/dispages/Fact_Sheets/Ebola_Fact_Booklet.pdf
* The World Health Organization
* CNN News