Ebola: Facts and Myths

[This is an archived post from Mad Science Defense, currently on indefinite hiatus, and may not reflect the usual tone and content of Author J.R. White and/or the Storyteller at Large Blog. If you have arrived here via links from a website elsewhere in the tactical and combatives training community, we wish you the best in your skill development journey.]


Some Facts and Myths about Ebola

Now you may be asking yourself, why is a combatives instructor writing a post about Ebola? Maybe a quick explanation of how this ties in with Mad Science Defense is in order. You see, before I was a fighter I was a scientist. I graduated Texas A&M with a degree in Marine Biology and went to work for the University of Minnesota doing gene-therapy research to find cures for pediatric genetic diseases. One of my tasks at “The U” was to build viruses from scratch to use in research. We were building viruses to fix genetic disorders, curing illness instead of causing it.

While working as a scientist, I was also fighting professionally in Mixed Martial Arts. Inevitably, my nickname became “The Mad Scientist” which became the inspiration for Mad Science Defense when I decided to change careers and follow my passion for teaching combatives and making people safer in a different way.

Hopefully some of the knowledge and resources I share below, as well as the myths I dispel, will help you feel safer in the current fervor surrounding the Ebola virus.


Some Facts About Ebola

What is Ebola?

Ebola is a filo-virus, meaning it has an oblong filamentous shape (that’s why it looks like spaghetti in all the press photos). It’s a hemorrhagic fever, meaning it causes fever and internal bleeding. There is also headache and blood-tinged vomiting and diarrhea. There are 3 strains of Ebola that I am aware of: Ebola Zaire, Ebola Sudan and Ebola Reston. Viruses are named for where they’re discovered, in this case the Ebola River, a tributary of the Congo. Strains are named for where that particular mutant emerges.

Viruses are basically pieces of genetic code, plus some protein. They’re not alive. They work by infecting a cell, using their code to tell the cell’s machinery to build copies of the virus. This replication continues until the cell dies, releasing more virus into the system.

Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian, died at 0715 Wednesday October 8th 2014, becoming the first person to die of Ebola on American soil.

How long have we known about Ebola?

The first case of Ebola Zaire was recorded in September of 1976 and the resulting outbreak killed 90% of the infected. This immediately caught the attention of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), as well the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Both agencies have been actively researching Ebola in some capacity ever since.

How does it spread?

In order to catch Ebola, you have to come into direct contact with the body fluids of an infected person, such as blood, vomit, excrement, etc. Basically, if it exits the body as a solid or liquid, it can carry the virus. Fortunately, Ebola is not airborne and the incubation period (the time it takes an infected person to show symptoms) is pretty short, so it doesn’t spread very rapidly. This is because infected people end up sick before they can expose as many people as diseases with long incubation periods.

How can I protect myself?

For starters, don’t panic about the disease. Panic doesn’t work, never has. If you’re not in the direct presence of an infected person or their body fluids, you are not at risk. Not even a little. Unless you travel frequently to any of the West African countries that are currently dealing with outbreaks, or work in a medical facility that is currently treating an Ebola patient, you’re personal risk is essentially zero.

However, general good hygiene and the types of precautions you would take during flu season are always good practice. If you or a family member shows symptoms of Ebola (fever, headache, vomiting, diarrhea, unusual bleeding. Visit this WHO link for more) then get to a hospital ASAP, not because I think you might have Ebola, but because if you have those symptoms you should see a doctor anyway.

Who needs to worry?

If you’re traveling internationally, be aware of Ebola’s symptoms and avoid direct contact with anyone who shows them. If you work in an airport that gets international traffic from outbreak countries, know the symptoms and keep your eyes peeled. Same applies if you work in the medical field, especially in cities with international travel to and from outbreak affected countries.


Some Myths about Ebola

Myth 1: It’s Never Been in the US Before

This claim has been all over the news and social media, but believe it or not, there was an outbreak of Ebola Reston in… Reston, VA, just outside DC. That’s why that strain is called “Ebola Reston”. The outbreak occurred in a monkey quarantine facility in the winter of 1989. Even more terrifying, the virus appeared to become airborne in that case. Luckily the Reston strain only causes death in monkeys, and doesn’t appear to affect humans. The CDC quickly contained the outbreak, which is why a lot of people have never heard of it.

Myth 2: Terrorists will use Ebola as a Weapon

I’ve see this one floated on Facebook, too. The truth is Ebola is very difficult to weaponize. We know this because the Russians tried during the height of their bioweapons program and, although they were able to culture the virus with great difficulty in 1990, they never produced an Ebola weapon. If the most dedicated bioweaponeers in the history of the world couldn’t do it, I’m not worried.

Myth 3: It’s a Conspiracy to kill Africans or Control Minority Population

Louis Farrakhan has been spouting this nonsense myth, likely to spread a sense of fear and victimhood to keep his followers looking to him for guidance. The fact is the Ebola virus doesn’t care what color your skin is, where you’re from or what your religion happens to be. It’s a virus. That’s all. It’s not even a living organism, just a few lines of genetic code that hijacks the machinery of a human cell to replicate itself, causing disease in the process. It’s ruthlessly colorblind and non-partisan.

Myth 4: The National Rifle Association is Making Ebola Worse

It was on MSNBC that a talking head floated the idea that because the NRA had opposed the appointment of an anti-second amendment Surgeon General, that they’re somehow to blame for Ebola…. Yeah, sure. Remember what I said about the virus being ruthlessly non-partisan? Well, human beings are pretty much the opposite.


So if Ebola is so hard to catch, so hard to weaponize and the CDC and USAMRIID have so much experience working with it, why is everyone so scared?

Probably because there’s no readily available cure, the mortality rate is so high, and it’s an ugly disease that kills in an ugly way.

But I think there are some other factors in play. Such as: Maybe because our government and media both have serious credibility problems. Maybe because we don’t trust the same government that can’t keep nut-jobs off the White House lawn to keep a virus out of the country. Because we think that if you can’t get a working medical enrollment website running with billions of dollars that you probably can’t do much with actual medical care. Maybe it’s because the current administration shows no intention of restricting travel from outbreak affected countries, and has sent thousands of American personnel to those regions to face exposure. Because the 24-hour News Cycle knows that horror, panic and wild speculation sell more ad-space and air-time than facts and reasoned debate. Maybe because after two divisive, two-term presidents in a row, we are conditioned to assume the government has no idea what it’s doing. I find that an easy assumption to share.

All these things add up and serve as a giant magnifier for our fears.

Fear and Cynicism have grown quite a bit in our country. Some of us have felt like something bad was on the way for a long time, and fear this might be it. I imagine folks felt the same way in other times of trial. Like the Cold War, The Spanish Influenza Pandemic, World Wars I&II and recent conflicts.

But what all of those times of trial have in common is this; we got through them. Despite disease, economic withdrawals, wars and rumors of wars, America stands.

I think now is the time to remember that America is not a government. America is an idea about freedom and individual liberty, carried out by the people. And it’s the people, the doctors and nurses, researchers, first responders and others, people just like us who go to work each day and do their best that will keep this Ebola threat at bay. I have little faith in the government, but I still have faith in the People.

Until next time!

Justin White

Additional Reading:

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston

This book was my introduction to Ebola back when I was studying Marine Biology at Texas A&M. It provides a clear history of the virus, including the Reston, Virginia outbreak mentioned above. It’s also a great and exciting read.

Biohazard by Ken Alibek

Before he defected to the U.S. to work for the good guys, Ken Alibek was Kanatjan Alibekov, head of the USSR’s Biopreparat bioweaponeering program. If you want to know just how terrifyingly close to a biological apocalypse we came during the Cold War, this is the book to read.

Virus Hunter by C.J. Peters

This memoir follows the life and career of C.J. Peters. Peters has been both the Chief of the Disease Assessment Division at USAMRIID and the Chief of Special Pathogens at the CDC. He has studied various hemoragic fevers abroad and in the U.S. and was the head of the unit that contained the Ebola Reston outbreak.

The Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston

This book isn’t about Ebola, it’s about Smallpox. It’s also the most terrifying book I have ever read.

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