Virus Apocalypse: It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Sneezes 

Ebola Virus outbreak 2

There is little else on this Earth quite as chilling as hearing that there has been an outbreak of the Ebola virus. It brings crashing to mind all of those terrifying movies depicting a world ravaged by a fierce virus for which there is no vaccination, no cure and a meagre chance of survival. Almost two years ago, however, the horror of Hollywood imagination made its real life debut in a handful of countries in West Africa and this appearance by one of the world’s worst viruses known to man has left the local population shattered and terrified.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), we faced the worst outbreak in recorded history and the death toll increased daily. With this shocking realisation in mind come many questions: what is the Ebola virus? How at risk is the rest of the world to contracting this pathogen and what actually happens to the body once it’s infected? Let’s take a look at the microscopic douche bag that effortlessly, in as little as a few short weeks, showed up mankind for our frailty.

Now Might Be the Time to Cancel that Trip to West Africa 

west-africa-Ebola outbreak distribution-map

Source: World Health Organisation (WHO), Ebola Response Roadmap, February 11th 2015

If you have impending travel plans for Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Guinea and Liberia, now might be the time to reconsider. Your journey of a lifetime might just become your last. At the last count (December 27th 2015) WHO reported that 28,637 people had been officially diagnosed with the Ebola virus in these countries, with 11,315 having succumbed to it.

A 40% death rate might not seem like the apocalyptic scenario you’d associate with an end-of-the-world type virus… that is, until you put yourself in the worn sandals of some poor West African soul. Imagine your doctor telling you that your chance of surviving your illness is 60%! I’d give up all vestiges of civilized behaviour and kill myself with red wine and tequila before that miserable virus could have a chance to get hold of my internal organs. If you think 40% is bad, however, consider the fact that the death rate of the Zaire Ebolavirus has been as high as 90% in the past:

  • 71% in 2007: 187 people dead in the Democratic Republic of Congo
  • 90% in 2003: 128 people dead in Democratic Republic of Congo
  • 75% in 2001-2002: 44 people dead in Democratic Republic of Congo
  • 88% in 1976: 280 people dead in Democratic Republic of Congo

I don’t care how democratic it is, I’m SO removing Congo from my travel plans!

So, while it might sound completely ridiculous to say, the people in the affected areas are at least a little lucky in some glass-half-full kind of way. I do understand this is hard to appreciate when you are bleeding out your bum.

This brings us to the profile of a pathogen so nasty and malicious, it would have had a glittering career in Hitler’s SS.

Profile of a Serial Killer

Ebola virus under microscope

The Ebola virus belongs to a nasty, sadistic family of pathogens called the Flioviridae that essentially cause the body to haemorrhage uncontrollably – that is, to bleed internally and externally and all-aroundernally. There are five different species of Ebola virus, because for some God-forsaken reason one isn’t enough. They are:

  1. Zaire Ebolavirus (EBOV)
  2. Sudan Ebolavirus (SUDV)
  3. Bundibugyo Ebolavirus (BDBV)
  4. Reston Ebolavirus (RESTV)
  5. Taï Forest Ebolavirus (TAFV)

Historically, the three problematic strains of this virus have been the Bundibugyo, the Sudan and the Zaire ebolavirus, the latter of which has been wreaking havoc in West Africa since February 2014. The other two species are, interestingly enough, not typically associated with large outbreaks. In fact, RESTV in particular hasn’t been known to kill anyone ever. Amateur.

A Little Aside: The Ebola virus was named after a river in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was here in 1976 that the first recorded outbreak occurred.

How Is Ebola Transmitted?

Ebola virus outbreak

You catch Ebola by somehow ingesting the bodily fluids of an infected person. This, given the virus’ tendency to cause flu-like symptoms, uncontrollable diarrhoea and vomiting, is mighty difficult to avoid, especially if you are living in close proximity to the sick person. And this is precisely why the virus tends to spread so quickly amongst family members and to the medical physicians who are trying to treat these patients. Given the lack of proper, sterile medical infrastructure in these poor West African countries and the strange burial ceremonies honoured there (involving kissing and touching the corpses of loved ones passed), this virus is having an utter field day.

Thankfully, in the midst of all the carnage, there’s the fact that the Ebola virus isn’t airborne. That means you can’t get it from breathing in the same air as someone who is infected, so you don’t need to fear the zombie apocalypse the next time some stranger sneezes. Just keep your mouth close and wash your hands regularly.

Symptoms and Signs Your Wife Might Be Cashing In Your life Insurance Policy Soon

Ebola Virus outbreak 4

Once infected, it could take you as little as a few days or as long as three weeks to start showing symptoms. You’ll feel like crap and probably think you have some kind of flu with symptoms that include achy muscles, a monster headache, fever and a sore throat. Meanwhile beneath the surface of your skin all hell is breaking loose…

Ebola takes up residence inside your body’s cells where it begins its merry task of replicating. Once one has become two, they erupt out of their host cell, completely destroying it in the process. This tiny asshole then starts secreting a kind of protein known as “ebolavirus glycoprotein,” which coats the interior walls of your blood vessels, disintegrating them and leaving them more leaky than a submarine with air vents.

Ebola also impedes your blood’s ability to clot, so you essentially become haemophilic… unable to stop bleeding. One sneeze can initially cause your nose to erupt in a crimson plume of infection, while an accidental bump could leave you looking like you escaped a marriage with Mike Tyson. Eventually, if you survive the fever, dehydration, rashes and swelling long enough to experience the next merry phase of the illness, your blood will start to seep out of your blood vessels in a whole-body internal and external haemorrhage. That’s right. You’ll have blood seeping out of your eyes, nose, gums, ears and other unmentionable bodily orifices.

The next few stops on the Ebola train include disseminated intravascular coagulation, shock and then death.

It’s utterly terrifying.

Where Are Your White Blood Cells When You Need Them?

White blood cells

The reason the Ebola virus has such a high death rate is because it is as keen a master of offence as it is of defence. It actually prevents the white blood cells from “hearing” your body’s natural defence alarm. So while the virus completely destroys your body, your white blood cells – the little guys responsible for protecting your body – are just hanging out, playing cards, drinking beer and hitting on platelets. But wait, it gets worse (or more hilarious depending on how morbid your sense of humour is): the Ebola virus remains so undetected by your immune system that it will actually hitch a ride on your white blood cells to other parts of the body. This explains its rapid spread to all of the body’s major organs and systems.

Sweet Jesus, tell me there’s something modern medicine can do to treat it!

Unfortunately, no. There is no cure and no vaccine for the Ebola virus. In fact, scientists are only now beginning to understand how it works, spreads and wreaks so much havoc on the body. I can imagine that the response from lab technicians willing to volunteer to do the necessary research on live virus specimens must be underwhelming.

I know I’d bunk work that day.

Homer Simpson Woohoo!

The only thing doctors can do for Ebola virus patients is keep them comfortable, hydrated and clean. It’s up to your body to do the rest, which is why it’s the strong who typically survive this virus.

Where Did the Ebola Virus COME From?

There is a very important field of specialty dedicated to understanding the origin and spread of harmful pathogens and it’s called “epidemiology.” By pinpointing the origin of a particular virus, we can understand HOW it spreads and therefore how to minimize this spread. It is also possible to infer from the point of origin the necessary clues to develop a treatment or vaccine.

In the case of the Ebola virus, the origin is believed to be fruit bats of the family Pteropodidae and genera Myonycteris torquata, Epomops franqueti and Hypsignathus monstrosus. What causes such devastation to us humans bumbles around quite harmlessly within the living tissues of these rodent aviators. The actual transmission of the virus occurs when someone gets the bright idea to have a bat barbecue or sandwich.

Unfortunately, bats are quite popular on the menu in West Africa.

Cute fruit bat

How could you eat that face?

The Ebola virus has also been documented in monkeys, gorillas, chimpanzees and even certain antelope. The problem here is that uneducated people from the villages in these remote areas have no idea of the danger they put themselves in when they come across a dead animal in the forest. They don’t see the harm in prodding it, eating it, or bringing it home with them for whatever reason. They have no idea that swimming around within the coagulating vessels of this deceased creature is a deadly virus that could lay complete waste to their village in a matter of weeks.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

Ebola Virus outbreak 3

When diagnosing the Ebola virus, doctors are instructed to first rule out a host of other potentially fatal illnesses, including the PLAGUE. You know a sickness is really bad when it could be confused with the plague, for crying out loud! And bad the Ebola virus is. To date and at the time of writing, more than 28,000 people are estimated to have been infected in the outbreak in West Africa.

The take-home message of this particular blog on the Ebola virus could pertain to any lethal virus, I suppose. While there are things we can do to help patients fight off infection and emerge victorious (with one hell of a story to tell the grandchildren), we have to be fully cognisant of the irony that something so small – something invisible – could utterly destroy one of the most successful species on the planet. All we can do is hope that a virus similar in action to the Ebola, but deadlier and more uncontrollable in its spread never, ever makes it out of the dark recesses of our planet.

So, kids, wash your hands before you eat and no matter how tempted you are to try new things, never order bat off the menu.

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Fire and Brimstone – the Story of Volcanoes

eruzione Etna volcano
Mount Etna eruption, Nicolosi Catania, Italy

There’s something beautiful about a woman’s rage (not counting the tarts from Geordie Shore) and in no better way is this sentiment illustrated than by Mother Nature’s ire. As terrifying as it is to be at ground zero, from a safe distance, natural disasters are incredibly awe-inspiring and angry volcanoes deserve a top spot for making people go “ooooh” and “aaaaah” and “oh shit…”

Volcanoes are literal pathways from the Earth’s fiery guts to its crusty exterior. But the channels available for the molten rock and gas that spew forth are far too narrow to satisfy the sheer volume of indigestion within and the result is an immense build-up of pressure. The release of this pressure includes, but is not limited to, violent sprays of lava, devastating pyroclastic flows, stratospheric columns of volcanic ash, electrical storms, scalding gas and dust and Hiroshima-type explosions that not only dislocate millions of tonnes of solid rock, but have been reported to be audible many thousands of kilometres away from the point of origin.

Vesuivio_Eruzione eruption volcano
Source: “Vesuivio Eruzione April 26th, 1872” by Giorgio Sommer – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Volcanoes have the potential to send species to extinction, yet at the very same time, they nourish the biosphere in an appreciable radius around them (volcanic ash is highly fertile). Volcanoes are magnificent and a wonderful example of how the surface of our planet is in a constant state of dynamism.

Where Not To Go On Summer Vacation

Planet tectonics plate diagram

Volcanoes typically form at the convergent and divergent boundaries between the enormous shifting tectonic plates that comprise the Earth’s crust (see gorgeous image above). It is here that the seams of the Earth permit plumes of its molten interior to travel towards the surface. But as it was mentioned, the surface-bound transport of this material is anything but a six-lane highway. It’s more like a gravelly, pothole-ridden country road. The gas and molten rock that are trying to get from A to B encounter rigid rock and the cracks they exploit along their journey are incredibly narrow. A build-up of pressure results in a potentially explosive situation, so that when something finally gives, the results are disastrous for the local biology: human habitation included.

Volcanoes also form over features called “hot spots”, which don’t necessarily occur near plate tectonic boundaries (see diagram below). The Hawaiian Islands – all of them formed by volcanic activity in the middle of the Pacific Plate – are a prime example of this.

volcanic-hot-spots

There are several scientific theories that seek to explain what hot spots are and a popular one is that they are upwelling intrusions of molten material (mantle plumes) that originate at the boundary between the Earth’s core and mantle. The exact depth of this varies, but the Hawaiian hot spot is estimated to be 3,000 km deep. That’s 9,842,520 ft. for those of you in ‘Merica.

Volcano Classification

There’s more to volcanology than your stock standard angry Earth pimple. Volcanoes come in many shapes, sizes and compositions. What happens at the surface – what we see and experience when volcanoes awake from their slumber – is dependent on a suite of factors and an especially important one is the composition of the magma that is trying to escape the lithified constraints of the crust.

Lava Composition

Lava flow in Hawaii

Rock that is rich in silicates tends to form chunky, viscous slow-moving magma. This subset of liquid rock is in no hurry to go anywhere and tends to contribute to terrible congestion. It also has the particularly nasty habit of trapping gas, which is why things can get explosive. Since Hawaii is no stranger to seismic activity, its inhabitants have coined a word for this particular magma and it’s pāhoehoe.

At the other end of the spectrum, you get magma that doesn’t contain a lot of silicates, but is rather rich in ferrous (iron) compounds. This magma – ʻAʻa, pronounced “ah ah” – get’s extremely hot and tends to flow hard and fast. If you’ll excuse the crass analogy, the difference between pāhoehoe and ʻAʻa is much like the difference between constipation and Delhi belly.

Both, however, are extremely uncomfortable.

Magma isn’t, of course, one or the other. There is a vast spectrum of mineral compositions between, but by understanding the difference between one extreme and the other, we can begin to understand how different kinds of volcanoes are formed.

Cone, Shield and Stratovolcanoes

If there’s one thing to be said for geologists, it’s that they don’t mess around with terminology. The name bestowed upon a volcano is as transparent as a wet T-shirt.

Cone (Cinder) Volcanoes

Bromo volcano in Indonesia
Mount Gunung Bromo (Indonesian island of Java): A classic cinder or cone volcano

Cone volcanoes, also known as cinder cones, generally consist of a hill that can be anywhere from 30 meters (98 ft.) to 400 (1,312 ft.) meters in height. Formed from the eruption of materials that are riddled with gas, crystals and a hodgepodge of fragmented rock. To see an example of this kind of volcano, put on your sombrero, crack open the tequila and get on a plane to New Mexico. There, you will find a spectacular volcanic field called Caja Del Rio, which comprises more than 60 cone volcanoes. If the prospect of New Mexico doesn’t appeal, you can always bum a lift on the next scientific mission to Mars or the moon, both of which are believed to feature this type of volcano.

Shield Volcanoes

Kohala-Landsat Hawaii shield volcano
Kohala Mountain, the oldest of Hawaii’s five volcanoes. The entire island is a massive shield volcano. Source: By USGS (source usage) via Wikimedia Commons

Shield volcanoes have a much broader profile than cone volcanoes and, as the name suggests, are shaped like shields. Bet you didn’t see that one coming. These beasts are formed from the eruption of very runny lava that tends to escape the Earth’s crust before causing too much mayhem as a result of a build-up of pressure. Shield volcanoes are, by comparison, the placid elderly aunt of volcanoes and are most commonly found at oceanic tectonic boundaries. Oceanic plates aren’t usually rich in silicates, which explains why the magma produced here is more felsic in composition, hence its lower viscosity. Skjaldbreiður in Iceland (say that three times fast) is an example of a shield volcano. The Hawaiian Islands, which have formed almost smack bang in the middle of the Pacific Plate over a “hot spot,” are also shield volcanoes.

Pyroclastic_flows_at_Mayon_Volcano
In June of 2013, the Mayon stratovolcano in Albay, Philippines, reached Level 1 alert level due to what the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology refers to as “abnormal behavior”.

Stratovolcanoes 

Stratovolcanoes, or composite volcanoes, are the tri-polar member of the volcanic family. They look like your typical volcano but actually consist of alternating layers of different kinds of erupted material as the above diagram depicts. Stratovolcanoes produce a range of eruptions depending upon their mood and these include chunky cinders, choking ash and molten rock (lava). One of the best known (and least loved) of these volcanoes is Mount Vesuvius, which is located in Stromboli, Italy. This one was responsible for the notorious levelling of the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in AD 79, killing 16,000 people. It is estimated that Mount Vesuvius released 100,000 times the energy liberated by the Hiroshima bomb.

Volcanic Hazards

Mount Pinatubo Explodes
Run? Source: “Point of View Photos” Huffington Post

When volcanoes become active, a number of things can happen, none of them good if you’re fond of life. One of the most devastating of these consequences is ash. You wouldn’t think so… ash is soft and white. How on Earth could it possibly inconvenience you the way a searing hot lake of lava might? Stratovolcanoes are especially fond of explosive eruptions, which send voluminous clouds of ash into the atmosphere and cascading down their slopes.

This ash, however, isn’t the kind you find in your barbeque pit after a night of camping, beer and sing-a-longs. It’s mixed with gas that is hot enough to disassociate your atoms. These eruptions send roiling clouds of gas, dust, ash and other debris down the mountain, which devastate anything organic in their path, leaving behind a scene that looks like a bomb went off in a cocaine factory.

Extinct, Dormant and Active Volcanoes: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Stromboli volcanic eruption3

Volcanoes are dangerous creatures. So an apt analogy for the popular classifications of these geological features would be your mother. When she has a gin and tonic in her hand (dormant), you may want to make plans for the evening. When she’s 10 G&T’s down (active), it’s time to execute those plans and get the hell out of the house. When she’s passed out on the couch (extinct), it’s safe to come home, although my recommendation to you would be to move out your childhood home and get yourself an education.

Extinct volcanoes, such as the Netherland’s Zuidwal and Shiprock volcanoes, are no longer considered to be active at all because they don’t have a supply of magma. They also have no documented history of indigestion. Dormant volcanoes, on the other hand, are known to have erupted at some stage in recent history. They may be quiet, but that doesn’t mean they can’t suddenly awaken. Mount Vesuvius (Gulf of Naples) was a purring kitten before it went psycho in AD 79, as was Mount Pinatubo (Philippines) prior to its epic tantrum in 1991. The latter is now considered an active volcano, which is one that has exhibited recent activity and is therefore a potential hazard to all within its vicinity.

Krakatoa

krakatoa-volcano-1883-eruption

If you’ve ever had a fight with Mexican food and lost (who hasn’t?) then integrating “Krakatoa” into your vocabulary is a wonderful idea if you need help explaining exactly what just happened to you to the flat mate who is next in line for the bathroom. You may not be absolved for your sins, but it’ll get you a laugh or two.

Krakatoa is a first class example of what happens when Mother Nature gets really cross and decides to let off a bomb that makes Hiroshima look like a fart. In 1883, the build-up of pressure under the Earth’s crust between the islands of Sumatra and Java in the Sunda Strait was so immense that it caused an apocalyptic-sized explosion, sending a once much bigger island into the stratosphere.

The Krakatoa eruption was reported to have been heard almost 5,000 km away (the loudest sound ever made in recorded history) and the resultant shock waves sent barograph needles oscillating violently off the page. Over 36,000 people were killed by the eruption: if not by the devastating pyroclastic flows and falling debris, then by the tsunamis that followed. The dust catapulted into the atmosphere caused stunning sunsets around the world for months after the eruption.

Too bad colour photography wasn’t in vogue in the 19th Century.

krakatoa - krakatau volcano map
Source: Krakatau Tour Website: A map of ex-Krakatoa and the now much smaller island of Anak Krakatau, which means “son of Krakatoa”. The dotted line represents the size of the island before it went nuclear.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

If you ever needed to respect the fact that we are just not in control of our natural environment, then stand next to an active volcano. From lakes of lava and earthquakes that shake the foundations of your stick hut to falling debris and scalding hot pyroclastic flows that choke the biosphere, volcanoes are creatures to be respected, studied and understood. If ever there were an item to put on your bucket list, it would be to stand next to an active volcano and feel the heat of Earth’s exterior lap at your cheeks. Just make sure you’ve ticked off the rest of those bucket list items before you do so…

Mount Redoubt Eruption
“Mount Redoubt Eruption” by R. Clucas – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. Mount Redoubt is a stratovolcano and is part of the very seismically active Aleutian Range in Alaska.