My first introduction to this disease was the film, “Outbreak.” In the movie, I remember the level 4 trauma ward of the CDC where the dreaded virus was housed. One of my favorite parts of the movie was when one character proclaimed, “It’s airborne!” I remember the scary images dramatizing those affected, bleeding from every opening. The virus in the movie was reported to be worse than Ebola.
I saw “Outbreak” when I was a sophomore in college attending Emory University and living a stone’s throw from the CDC, not that the proximity mattered. The CDC could have been housed on Mars at the time for how far fetched the movie’s premise was to me at the time. I’ve never forgotten about those fictional images or the movie.
Where did this virus come from? Fruit bats. The World Health Organization warns people in affected regions in West African countries against eating bushmeat to prevent animal to human transmission.
The first known case of the virus occurred in 1967 in Marburg, Germany. The origin of that small, contained outbreak was a group of green monkeys imported from Africa to be used for research and vaccine production. The monkeys were euthanized. There were only 31 human cases.
In 1976, the next known outbreak occurred in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in Yambuku near the Ebola river, later becoming the virus’ namesake. The aforementioned outbreak in Germany was referred to as the Marburg Virus. The Marburg and Ebola viruses are from the same virus family, Filoviridae. There were 318 cases and 280 deaths. In 1977 and 1979 there were small outbreaks in Sudan, Zaire (DRC), and London (laboratory incident). In 1989 the virus was introduced in a Reston, VA primate facility by infected monkeys imported from the Philippines.
From 1989 to 2013, there have been 30 relatively small outbreaks in the world, mostly in West African countries. The largest fatal cases–in the hundreds–were all in this region. The 2014 outbreak is horrifying because the number of human cases are over 4500 with deaths edging toward 2500.
This is the brief origin story of Ebola before the recent American cases. I’ll write about those in a later post.