National Geographic News
Workers dressed in protective clothing outside a hospital in Uganda.

World Health Organization officials prepare to enter Kagadi Hospital in Uganda on July 28.

Photograph by Isaac Kasamani, AFP/Getty Images

Ker Than

for National Geographic News

Published July 31, 2012

A recent outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in Uganda highlights the many unknowns of the highly contagious fever, experts say.

(See more health news.)

The latest Ebola occurrence is thought to have started in Uganda's western Kibaale District about three weeks ago, but was confirmed only last Friday.

The outbreak initially went undetected, because patients did not show typical Ebola symptoms, such as hemorrhaging, and because they had other illnesses, such as malaria, which complicated diagnosis, according to Ugandan officials.

Among the 14 dead are a medical clinic officer and her four-month-old baby, as well as 9 members from a single family. A dozen others suspected to be infected have been admitted to the local hospital, according to the Washington Post.

This is not the first time Ebola has struck Uganda: In 2007 an outbreak killed 42 people, and an epidemic in 2000 killed more than 200.

(Related: "Where Does Ebola Hide Between Epidemics?")

The virus is still so mysterious that no one knows how it originated, in which species it hides out between epidemics, or how to treat it. There's also a lack of understanding of how Ebola is transmitted, as Uganda's president demonstrated in a national address Monday.

"We discourage the shaking of hands, because that can cause contact through sweat which can cause problems ... and avoid promiscuity, because these sicknesses can also be transmitted through sex," Yoweri Museveni said in the address.

But the idea that Ebola can be spread by shaking hands—via sweat—is a myth, according to Joseph Fair, vice president of Metabiota, a San Francisco-based company that studies Ebola and other pathogens.

"Ebola is not currently known or thought to be transmitted by perspiration," Fair said. Ebola is transmitted by bodily fluids.

Overall, "being more aware of your surroundings and mindful of your contacts is always recommended if you live in the area of an outbreak."

Incredibly Lethal Virus

First reported in 1976 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ebola is one of the most contagious known viruses. It's also incredibly lethal, killing up to 90 percent of its victims through widespread internal—and sometimes external—bleeding.

Initial symptoms can appear seemingly benign, and include vomiting, red eyes, stomach pains, and hiccups. (Take an infectious diseases quiz.)

Eventually the virus causes capillaries—tiny, branching blood vessels throughout the body—to leak, Fair explained.

"You essentially lose the junctures between your cell walls, so your capillaries are leaking. Once that happens, you lose blood pressure and you essentially die of shock ... It's an extremely uncomfortable death."

What's more, the few people who survive Ebola often find themselves treated as outcasts by neighbors who fear the survivors still carry the disease, even though the infection is not chronic like HIV.

"While HIV-prevention-and-education campaigns have been very effective, one unforeseen effect is that people think every infection is a chronic one that will be with you for life," Fair said.

(Also see "Ebola Killing Thousands of Gorillas, Study Says.")

Ebola Origins a Mystery

Discovering Ebola's host or hosts—called natural reservoirs—could also help scientists predict outbreaks and develop safety measures.

Some scientists have suggested that bats are Ebola's natural reservoirs, and there is some evidence to support this theory. For example, when researchers have injected bats with the Ebola virus in experiments, the bats have survived. (Related: "Fruit Bats Likely Hosts of Deadly Ebola Virus.")

But Ebola's protein structure also shares curious similarities with retroviruses carried by birds, leading some researchers to suspect the virus might have an avian origin.

One possible scenario is that Ebola evolved in birds in the distant past and was transmitted to bats, which now pass the virus on to humans and primates, said David Sanders, an Ebola researcher at Purdue University in Indiana.

It could even be that Ebola hides out in bats and birds.

"I am not opposing the idea that bats are a natural reservoir," Sanders said, "but I do not think birds have been or should be ruled out as a past host or even as a current host."

Ebola would not be the first virus to have a complicated past. The influenza virus, for example, originally infected only birds, but then jumped to humans, who might have then passed it on to pigs, Sanders said.

Now humans can catch the flu from both birds and pigs, as evidenced by the 2009 swine flu outbreak.

Ebola Vaccine on Horizon?

Despite being first reported nearly 40 years ago, there is still no treatment or cure for Ebola.

One reason is that Ebola is not a single virus but five different strains, or species. And as with influenza and HIV, each species of Ebola carries different surface proteins that can be targeted by our immune systems.

"Therefore, if you happen to mount an immune response against species 1 of Ebola, it would most likely not be protective against species 2, 3, 4, and 5," Sanders explained.

Sanders thinks the disease's limited scope is another reason no Ebola vaccine currently exists.

"How many Americans have died of Ebola? ... The answer is zero," he said. "We tend to focus on those diseases that affect us the most."

But the likelihood is greater that an Ebola vaccine might soon be developed, as the U.S. military is concerned Ebola could be used for bioterrorism.

"A lot of researchers have come into the field since 9/11," Sanders said. "It's clearly on the [U.S.] Department of Defense's radar."

(See "Ebola Cured in Monkeys—Hope for Humans?")

And it's not just the U.S. military that's interested in biodefense, Metabiota's Fair noted. Other federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Homeland Security have increased their biodefense budgets in the wake of 9/11. The European Union, Japan, and other countries have followed suit.

If military-funded research does lead to the successful development of an Ebola vaccine, it could ultimately benefit countries such as Uganda when the next natural outbreak strikes, the experts say.

"There's little doubt in my mind that advances in vaccines that are biodefense-oriented will have implications for defense against natural [Ebola] outbreaks," Sanders said.

"This is the way science works. You focus on one particular approach, but there are spin-offs for other things."

8 comments
Kevin Worldsavior
Kevin Worldsavior

If I am paid just 2 billion EURO, I can rid the world of the imminent Ebola virus worldwide pandemics threat - Otherwise much more billions of money will be spent to no avail - the deadly Ebola virus will continue spreading and threatening the lives of millions of innocent people on Earth - I got the deadly Ebola virus devastating destroyer - My Personal Virus and Cancer Killer, that kills any viruses and any bioterrorist bugs the moment they touch us (Ebola, Bubonic, HIV, Colds, Flues, Malaria, Dengue, etc.). That is just an exercise for a minute a day for prevention and for 3 minutes a day for max. 7 days for the sick person to get cured. The Virus/Cancer Killer is by far more powerful than the human immune system itself, keeping it intact all the time and is the greatest discovery in more than 2 million years of humankind on the planet.

Elizabeth Herbert
Elizabeth Herbert

They need to save the people.  Life is sacred.


*I am not a doctor.


I recommend:


Rushing careful manufacture of the most safe & effective vaccine.  Using the below General Population Measure on the entire possibly infected community.  Using the vaccine instead (per physician opinion), one it arrives, on the most ill individuals, in combination with 3-5 mg Vitamin C a day intravenously with fresh, sterilized needles.


They should be able to manufacture a small to moderate supply within a few weeks.


General Population Measure:

*(According to Body Weight Proportion)

*Pau de Arco 500-1000mg, 3x day (for lungs)

*Elderberry 500-1000mg, 3x day (for nasty viruses)

*Echinacea 500-1000mg 3x day, if sore throat is involved

*3-5 mg Vitamin C day day intravenously with fresh, sterilized needles.

*Mucinex

*Fluids

*Vitamin K, as physician recommended, for hemmoraging

Humidifier

Careful Sterilization and Quarantine

*Halls Cough Drops


I will be praying for them.



Diwani Kamatoden
Diwani Kamatoden

I believe that the outbreak of that disease is caused by several factors not just the spread of virus but the lifestyle,food of people played the role of triggering the activeness of virus within body systems.It seems that the development of certain ebola virus was the result of human experiments in diff. Locations.


Bobby H
Bobby H

The virus is in the perspiration when shaking hands but has not been proven to infect anyone so it is considered a myth by  Joseph Fair, vice president of Metabiota. Would he bet his life on it?

James Mauro
James Mauro

OK, here is a real answer, there is a cure but the humanistic side for hope may not like it. In saying this I do not suggest that scientist may not find a way to treat all people via different method but there is currently a cure to the human spices with the regards to being immune to the virus entirely. Darwinism basically is a very brutal system that sometimes means a more desirable traits may be lost because other traits allow survival. IE 1 male survives and mates and another one dose not because they have a thicker coat of fur for the winter even though the other developed higher intelligence. Its a very depressing and yet lifting system. Any how, some people have a mutation in a certain type of protein called NPC1. That particular protein is required for the Ebola virus to reproduce. The individuals with the mutated versions of this protein do not allow the virus to reproduce, IE being a cure. The fact is the only way for this cure to take place according to Darwinism is for everyone that does not have this mutation to die off/ and or the people with this mutation to mate at a more successful rate. But this of course is potentially a permanent cure rather than a temporary fix that we as a society may forget IE, if a vaccine is found this is great when our society exist but what we learn from our own history is that societies fall, and the some of there knowledge falls with them, or there books/ information are destroyed by religious organizations at a later date, IE Alexandra, Hitler and any other religious movement burnt books. So a vaccine will only work as long as you know of it. Secondly the way that virus reproduce. It is the same way that the male makes sperm, by a process called mitosis in all reproduction process's the original strand of complex molecules tries to generally make an identical form of the original. However in this process when is gets its raw materials IE portionitly broken down molecular strands of the 4 found in in all life it will keep groups. IE you may have any where of a few to hundreds of strands that where not fully broken down and as a result the reproductive product contains some of its genetic material from the life form that its "parent" digested to get the raw material from. This is what I have started calling concurrent evolution in which the mutation that happens in the male sperm is what allows multiple different spices that cannot mate to develop the same genetic information that through once again Darwinism effects the masses. Which is of course why there is a large chunk of your DNA that is shared with the dandelion despite the fact that it may very well be found generations apart. Because for a large portion of history we ate them Now all that being said the fact that the virus can constantly mutate and the fact that it reproduces at an exponential rate allows the possibility that there can be that many possible mutations as a result one or more of the possible mutations can become immune to the "vaccine" thus rendering it useless. which once again I move toward Darwinism, some of humanity is immune to the viral disease not allowing it to reproduce which suggests that the only cure for it is that. Now once again Darwinism is pretty nasty, sometime what is most likely to survive is pretty bad on other levels. The mutation it self of the NPC1 protein is called Niemen pick disease, which frankly could be bad, so in reality yes there is a cure but no you may not like it. Which I hope this entry at least further shows you who should be the people taking care of trying to solve this problem. IE take the same precautions Suit up where gloves cover bodily, but in the possibility of exposure they as an individual have a possibility to survive where another person may/ does not. Secondly I hope it make you the reader realizes how we all changes as a group rather than individuals in the grand scheme of things and why it is important to protect all life.  I relize that I may not be the one accredited by this fact, even though this is the only logical conclusion, of why the male sperm has mutations closely linked to the genetic make up of the genetic material ingested although massively broken down into smaller pieces it is not completely broken down in all cases which is still smaller than any virus or bacteria that do penetrate and allows access to the area where sperm is created. To some it up, it is my idea, I have told individuals about it, and it is the only logical conclusion and once you understand that you can begin to understand how one might transfer the possible cure/ better possible cure to humans.

Nae M.
Nae M.

@James Mauro

Wait, wait, wait this was a bit ranty but I think I get what your talking about…You’re talking about the Niemann-Pick Disease aren’t you? The genetic disorder that’s been linked to severe birth defects such as organ enlargement and severe neurological issues…And on top of that suggesting we all mate with carrier individuals to be cured of Ebola?


If that’s the point you were making as of now there is research into that (even says so on Wikipedia) shows you’re not crazy or alone in your theory. But also the fact that NCP1 has a lot of not so great genetic links is why going on a mating frenzy to avoid ebola sounds nutty. Here's the wiki link:


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NPC1


And of course, type it in and Albert Einstein's College of Medicine's work on this comes up and they're still working on unlocking NCP1 in hopes of using it for a cure.


The funny thing is that sometimes it’s the most obvious answer that really is the cure. Aside from NCP1 the cure for Ebola may be right in their face (meaning in Africa amongst the sufferers) but it’s so obvious it keeps being overlooked.

James Mauro
James Mauro

@Nae M. @James Mauro  yes I am talking about Niemen pick disease> Here's the thing the word cure is misleading, The fact is that you will never find a cure in a bottle unless somehow you found away to change the genetic code of a human being in all cells reproductive and or otherwise. What they may find is a treatment. Its like someone saying lets find the cure to breast cancer, this cannot happen. breast cancer has been linked to a certain genetic code, that although certain conditions might antagonize this genetic trait thus making cancer it is of course genetic. The only "cure" is to not have that genetic code which not all people do. I am not saying the deliberate selection of genetic material is the greatest thing, you tend to get unknown side effects of breeding out features. We humans have done this a lot with plants and animals, we bread the lowest temperament wolf's and continued to select the lowest temperament wolfs for generations eventually the wolf fur in some breads became muti colored and in some there ears begin to drop. There is other results to Darwinism that may be overlooked. Its like when congress people try to pass a bill sometimes they sneak another one in the mix making the bill have perhaps undesirable effects for the whole.  Essentially any vaccine or other treatment doctors come up with for either of these is never a cure, it is a treatment for the condition. Although I am not suggesting evolution is perfect, it has several problems it would of course be the only thing one could call a cure.

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