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Nature's Perfect Killing Machine Can Be Killed With Soap
July 8, 2014 12:41 PM   Subscribe

Ebola is nightmare fuel: a biological doomsday device conspiring with our bodies to murder us in uniquely gruesome fashion. It’s also killed fewer than 2,000 people. How has a virus with such a modest body count so fiercely captured the darkest corners of our imagination? - Leigh Cowart for Haziltt.
posted by The Whelk (56 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
How has a virus with such a modest body count so fiercely captured the darkest corners of our imagination?

You BLEED from the EYES.

(Thanks for the link - article is quite interesting).
posted by longdaysjourney at 12:45 PM on July 8 [25 favorites]


Freakin' Slenderman has fiercely captured the darkest corners of a lot of imaginations. Imagine if Slenderman had actually, in real life, killed two thousand people.
posted by straight at 12:47 PM on July 8 [8 favorites]


Fifth grade, the 'diseases' unit of our science class. My group really wanted the Black Death, and when somebody else called it before us, we were really upset. So our teacher said "hey, you want something REALLY gross? Ever heard of Ebola?"

The colored pencil diagram I carefully drew of a person suffering all the symptoms of Ebola still pops into my head every now and then...
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:48 PM on July 8 [19 favorites]


The darkest corner of human imagination is the easiest possible thing to capture. It loves to be captured, it exists to be captured, it can't help but be captured. It's a "slut" for getting captured to use the modern parlance.
posted by bleep at 12:49 PM on July 8 [16 favorites]


A clown with spider legs and eyes, whose bite injects you with Ebola. There's your nightmare fuel.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:51 PM on July 8 [9 favorites]


> How has a virus with such a modest body count so fiercely captured the darkest corners of our imagination?

Ever read The Hot Zone (mentioned in the article)? I kind of wish I hadn't.
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:52 PM on July 8 [23 favorites]


showbiz_liz, your comment literally just made me laugh like Muttley.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:54 PM on July 8 [3 favorites]


I am kind of loving the comment about how ebola can be cured with homeopathic medicines.

(The Hot Zone was one of my favorites when I was a teenager. It's been so long that I've forgotten the plot. I should get a copy again...)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 12:59 PM on July 8 [2 favorites]


It's like an even more vile version of ask.me: “If my wife has Ebola and vomits on the floor, and a chicken eats the vomit, can I eat the chicken?”
posted by jeather at 1:02 PM on July 8 [18 favorites]


Much like I find it much scarier to fly than to drive, despite the fact that I am a gabillion times (actual statistic!) more likely to die in a car crash than I am to die in an aviation disaster. But one of the two evokes fiery explosive terror-filled death and other is just routine.

Ebola essentially liquifies you from the inside out. The flu is just not as impressive, in the grand scheme of nightmare fuel.

Also, I read The Hot Zone as an impressionable teen.
posted by lydhre at 1:04 PM on July 8 [2 favorites]


A few days ago, CDC discovered smallpox vials that had been misplaced in 1972.
posted by desjardins at 1:09 PM on July 8 [15 favorites]


I thought Ebola was actually pretty difficult to transmit. It can cause a lot of mayhem locally, but it's not going to ever be a pandemic like the flu.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:16 PM on July 8


A few days ago, CDC discovered smallpox vials that had been misplaced in 1972.


Well, that's a relief!


o_O
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:20 PM on July 8 [13 favorites]


jleather -- that made me wince too (and there was a reflexive bit of 'your wife has a 80 percent chance of dying and you worry about the chicken?') but if you are very poor a chicken may represent a serious amount of your wealth and isn't something you can just throw away. Especially if you are dealing with illness and death in the family (and possible ostracism.)
posted by tavella at 1:21 PM on July 8


KokoRyu -- my knowledge comes from the University of Hot Zone, but I feel like this is because you tend to die horribly before you can get very far with it...
posted by dorque at 1:23 PM on July 8


It's relatively hard to transmit, and it's hypervirulent, so it burns out rather quickly. As a pathogen, it's not a very successful one, because of its terrifying lethality.
posted by NoxAeternum at 1:23 PM on July 8 [5 favorites]


As a pathogen, it's not a very successful one, because of its terrifying lethality.

I've also read someplace that humans are not ideal hosts for Ebola, since we die too quickly.

Are there any newer books (Hot Zone is 20 years old now) about "outbreaks" anyone likes? While I saw Contagion on the airplane while coming down with a serious case of the flu (chillingly good fun), the last bit of journalism I read about this sort of thing was Demon in the Freezer which is pretty dated now too.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:27 PM on July 8


Interestingly, there is a ton of Richard Preston stuff on YouTube.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:28 PM on July 8


Are there any newer books (Hot Zone is 20 years old now) about "outbreaks" anyone likes?

Biohazard has some detractors, but it's an interesting look at biowarfare from a very different perspective.
posted by Etrigan at 1:30 PM on July 8 [1 favorite]


Oh, I understood why someone would ask about the chicken. You can't always afford to just toss away perfectly good food, even when your wife is probably going to die. But the question still struck me.
posted by jeather at 1:36 PM on July 8 [1 favorite]


Worst AskMefi "should I eat this" ever:

(“If my wife has Ebola and vomits on the floor, and a chicken eats the vomit, can I eat the chicken?” Answer: chickens make bad hosts for Ebola, but if the preparer comes into contact with vomit or blood remaining on the chicken during preparation, or the chicken still has Ebola inside it and is not cooked properly, it can be infectious. But a properly cleaned and cooked chicken? Safe to eat.)
posted by madamjujujive at 1:36 PM on July 8


Or the reason it was vile wasn't that the guy was asking something beyond the pale or horrifyingly unfeeling, it was the concept of eating a chicken that ate your dying wife's vomit that is vile.

I can say this because I can afford to buy pre-killed chicken, of course.
posted by jeather at 1:38 PM on July 8


Worst AskMefi "should I eat this" ever:

That would be an awesome AskMe because for once it has good info.

I can say this because I can afford to buy pre-killed chicken, of course.

If people knew what chickens preferentially ate, a lot fewer people would want to eat chicken.
posted by Dip Flash at 1:47 PM on July 8 [1 favorite]


Are there any newer books (Hot Zone is 20 years old now) about "outbreaks" anyone likes? While I saw Contagion on the airplane while coming down with a serious case of the flu (chillingly good fun), the last bit of journalism I read about this sort of thing was Demon in the Freezer which is pretty dated now too.


It is not about CURRENT outbreaks but The Ghost Map is excellent.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 1:53 PM on July 8 [5 favorites]


This was a really interesting article. I was on a kick of the plague/disease detective books years ago, I think started by The Band Played On, which was terribly sad but fascinating. Then The Hot Zone, The Coming Plague - maybe a few others. I am totally fascinated with the doctors who chase these things down. Respect!
posted by madamjujujive at 1:56 PM on July 8 [1 favorite]


The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett is another good nonfiction book on "extreme" virology, from about the same era as The Hot Zone. It's much longer but she includes lots of other great scary interesting viruses too. Hantavirus! Marburg! Legionnaire's disease!

I went through a super strong special-interest virology phase in 7th grade, read both of those books and more multiple times, wanted to work at the CDC when I grew up ever so badly, it was all I could ever talk about, etc. Not only was I an unabashed nerd, I was a weird macabre nerd who only wanted to talk about awful diseases.
Honestly, probably the only thing that stopped me from being diagnosed with Aspergers right then and there was that I was a girl and this was back in the day.

Interestingly enough, Richard Preston also wrote The Wild Trees, an amazing story about forest ecology in the Redwoods, which helped inspire me to become a forest ecologist many years later. He's one of my all-time favorite science writers. He has an incredible knack for highlighting what is interesting, beautiful, and valuable about scientific research without dumbing things down much, while still telling a compelling story about the interesting people doing the research. Most science writing is lucky to succeed at one or the other.

Even today, I still think the mainstream "popularity" of ebola virus is due at least in part to Preston's fantastic writing. I probably shouldn't read any more of his books lest I feel the need to change my career aspirations again!
posted by dialetheia at 2:05 PM on July 8 [10 favorites]


My ebola info is largely from The Hot Zone, so I don't know if is still considered true, but wasn't the end point that while the ebola variant that infected the monkeys wasn't symptomatic in humans, it was also airborne, which suggested that the human-lethal versions could possibly acquire the same ability?
posted by tavella at 2:16 PM on July 8


Oh come on, Ebola's not so bad.
posted by Catblack at 2:21 PM on July 8


I enjoyed Spillover after someone recommended it here. He talks about The Hot Zone as well (I loved it, and made sure to go see the Jaaxes when they spoke at K-State), and it's probably wrong of me but I was a bit disappointed about what he had to say about ebola:
But there are few things that [Preston] led people to understand about Ebola that are even more horrific than reality, the notion that people bleed out, as though their bodies were simply being drained off blood—they're bleeding from their eyes, they're melting inside, their internal organs are dissolving. And when I talk to the Ebola experts, people like Carl Johnson and Pierre Rola at the CDC and others, they said, "No, no, it doesn't do that. It is a horrible disease, but it is not horrible in that way." It kills a lot of people, but it's usually, its not necessarily even a particularly bloody disease; they don't call it Ebola hemorrhagic fever anymore, as they did, because they've realized that sometimes it's kind of bloody; it's not as bloody as Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever. It is a horrific disease that kills people, but it doesn't cause people to melt down.
As a grownup, that can only be good news, but the kid in me who likes the Grand Guignol of it is a bit disappointed.
posted by rewil at 2:24 PM on July 8 [3 favorites]


Ebola does just hit that perfect mental spot of a vaguely plausible horrific death. The one true faint I've ever done was in high school biology, when the teacher would read aloud excerpts from The Hot Zone for the microbiology unit.

I think he had reached the part about vomit that resembled coffee grounds when I (according to witnesses) rolled my eyes back, slid off my chair, and thudded onto the floor. Next thing I know, I'm waking up on hard linoleum to a circle of wide-eyed classmates staring down at me and I was rushed off to the nurse's office. I'm pretty sure The Hot Zone was one of the more popular books at our school library for a few months after that.

Still haven't read it. Nope.
posted by castlebravo at 2:27 PM on July 8 [4 favorites]


I thought Ebola was actually pretty difficult to transmit. It can cause a lot of mayhem locally, but it's not going to ever be a pandemic like the flu

Well, it isn't likely to spread to the entire world. But if it gets loose in a city, you could see tens or hundreds of thousands of dead. Right now in Africa they're afraid that might happen as part of this outbreak.

Diseases with as high a fatality rate as Ebola, which kill as quickly as Ebola, can't really become pandemic because they burn out. However, with modern jet travel the whole world is connected and it could spread quite far and do a lot of burning before it burns out.

Hemorrhagic fevers are monumentally ugly diseases. Before the discovery of Ebola, the worse HF was Marburg, which had about a 70% fatality rate. Ebola is over 90% -- and it's a painful and ugly death.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:41 PM on July 8


I grew up about a mile from the lab that had the Reston ebola outbreak; many of the physical landmarks in The Hot Zone are very familiar to me.

I've thought many times that the DC area is the perfect place for a germ tour, like the modern version of London's Jack the Ripper tour. Between the Reston Ebola outbreak, the DC Anthrax attack, and Ft. Detrick, it should be pretty easy to plan a fun and informative day trip with many examples of scary-as-fuck microbial and viral death for people who enjoy that kinda thing.
posted by peeedro at 3:00 PM on July 8 [1 favorite]


Not reading the comments yet. But let me add to what's up above.

It's horrible

It's deadly

And did I mention, fucking horrible?
posted by Windopaene at 3:21 PM on July 8


The fact that the reason you aren't probably going to get it is because it's too deadly and horrifying is telling. I love the "disease that captures the imagination" thing though.
posted by NoraReed at 3:32 PM on July 8


While I saw Contagion on the airplane while coming down with a serious case of the flu

Excellent film, and without even trying to, I imagine to let out a chest-rattling cough JUST as the end credits snapped on screen. The people next to me JUMPED.

(I love that sub genre, medical thrillers? Disease proceedurals? Where can I see more?) .
posted by The Whelk at 3:35 PM on July 8


Dear bleach,

Have I told you lately that I love you? Seriously. You are the best.

<3, me
posted by evidenceofabsence at 3:49 PM on July 8 [6 favorites]


In other news, the only remaining samples of smallpox are in super secure labs and also this cardboard box we just found.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 4:03 PM on July 8 [6 favorites]


I don't know, I think Ebola is horrible but for some reason it has captured the popular imagination more than, say, VHF, Blackwater fever or Cholera.

Cholera would seem to be a disease that could affect a modern society more than Ebola.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:50 PM on July 8 [1 favorite]


Death by smallpox gets about as horrifying as death by ebola, but it spreads much wider and is certainly able to affect a modern society. Plz be careful with that cardboard box...
posted by anonymisc at 5:06 PM on July 8


It got an FBI escort to the CDC's high security facility, so they were pretty careful with it.
posted by tavella at 5:13 PM on July 8


I remember readlng, relative to an earlier outbreak, that the virus loses strength over time and that therefore the outbreak naturally peters out. Can't find anything like that relative to the current outbreak. Am I misremembering this?
posted by beagle at 5:35 PM on July 8


Can you imagine being the one to find those smallpox vials? "Hm, what's in this box over here? OMG OMG OMG OMG"
posted by desjardins at 6:32 PM on July 8 [6 favorites]


You'd definitely always be labelling your vials for the rest of your life after that.
posted by jeather at 6:43 PM on July 8 [2 favorites]


Can you imagine being the one to find those smallpox vials? "Hm, what's in this box over here? OMG OMG OMG OMG"

"Hey, Stu... 'Variola' means 'smallpox,' right?"
"Yeah, why do you -- Hey, why are you running?"
posted by Etrigan at 7:15 PM on July 8 [6 favorites]


straight: "Freakin' Slenderman has fiercely captured the darkest corners of a lot of imaginations. Imagine if Slenderman had actually, in real life, killed two thousand people."

Yeah, Slenderman only has one, and that's not even successful... only a failed attempt.
posted by symbioid at 7:17 PM on July 8


I live about a mile from the CDC. I hope they were extra careful driving that damn box in. Atlanta is in dire need of major, MAJOR street repair.... Hit a pot hole right and I'm done. Sigh.
posted by pearlybob at 7:20 PM on July 8


I was in elementary school when Ebola Reston or Reston Virus was discovered and it was basically ten miles down the road from us so...kids gonna freak each other out with "you're gonna get Ebola!" or something like that. Also it was really trippy that that was how our area got national attention.
posted by sweetkid at 7:47 PM on July 8


(I love that sub genre, medical thrillers? Disease proceedurals? Where can I see more?) .

World War Z? ;)
posted by anonymisc at 8:25 PM on July 8


KokuRyu, Ebola is a subset of the VHFs. I will, on occasion, point out to people that one of the worst epidemics would happen if a hemorrhagic fever was aerosol transmitted and had a long incubation time. For added fun, some scientists have managed to breed aerosol-transmitted VHF…

For reading, I rather enjoyed Level 4: Virus Hunters of the CDC which has inspired several donations to Doctors Without Borders to help work on diseases in Africa. It's a shame that the region is so unstable, making preventive care and treatment difficult.
posted by caphector at 9:55 PM on July 8 [2 favorites]


I've thought many times that the DC area is the perfect place for a germ tour, like the modern version of London's Jack the Ripper tour. Between the Reston Ebola outbreak, the DC Anthrax attack, and Ft. Detrick, it should be pretty easy to plan a fun and informative day trip with many examples of scary-as-fuck microbial and viral death for people who enjoy that kinda thing.

Someone alert Sarah Vowell, I would listen to her talk about her DC area germ tour.
posted by dawg-proud at 10:20 PM on July 8 [3 favorites]


Can you imagine being the one to find those smallpox vials? "Hm, what's in this box over here? OMG OMG OMG OMG"

Well I did see the relevant episode of Leverage, and it gave me more feelings than ANY OTHER EPISODE OF LEVERAGE, which is a show that gives me a LOT of feelings. So I can sort of imagine it.

Though that episode involved Spanish flu, not smallpox. And I expect actually finding deadly, epidemic-level diseases that the population isn't prepared to is somewhat less likely to make me discover my OT3.
posted by NoraReed at 10:37 PM on July 8 [1 favorite]


Variola is a much cuter name than smallpox, though. Like an old gramophone, or a 1900s era soda.

Perhaps we can rename ebola as iBug or Zezt.
posted by Devonian at 3:47 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Perhaps we can rename ebola as iBug or Zezt.

Ask your doctor about MortaliaTM.
posted by BrashTech at 9:00 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Ebola deaths continue to rise
posted by The Whelk at 7:05 AM on July 16


WaPo: Two infected Americans, a dead Liberian doctor, and the worst-ever Ebola outbreak
posted by KatlaDragon at 2:17 AM on July 28


The number of experienced medical personnel that are being infected, even those without direct contact with patients (Writebol was only helping disinfect those returning from sessions with patients, not working with patients herself) suggests that the "it's no problem as long as you wash up" framing of the OP is not precisely accurate.
posted by tavella at 12:40 PM on July 28


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