Ebola: Threat to humanity or disease of the week?

     (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

    (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

    The Times’ Carl Zimmer on battling viruses that hide in humans.

    The ebola crisis continues to dominate the news cycle, as the death toll rises internationally and new cases are identified in the U.S. But New York Times science writer Carl Zimmer isn’t buying into the hype. He was in Philadelphia this past week to deliver a talk about viruses, and he stopped by our studios to give us his take on this particularly nasty pathogen.

    “I think it’s the result of an outbreak happening in an online age,” Zimmer told us when asked if he thinks the hype around the outbreak is warranted. “You can see it on TV and people can trade information about it on Facebook and Twitter. It can take on a life of its own.”

    “We’re definitely seeing some weaknesses in our health system, there’s no doubt about that,” he continued. “Ebola was found in 1976, and we have been talking about the potential risk of it for years and years, so how can we not have a standard protocol in place? That’s really kind of embarrassing.”

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    Zimmer said ebola moves in mysterious ways, popping up occasionally to kill and then going away. We now know it hides in animals, and technology has improved our ability to understand and track the disease. But Zimmer is skeptical that the vigilance needed to prevent outbreaks of all the different viruses that threaten the human population exists.

    “We tend to focus on the crisis of the moment, and then to forget about it when it’s out of view. So we were all very concerned about bird flu, for example, a few years back, and worried about a global pandemic. Thankfully, we didn’t see that happen, but that doesn’t mean the risk has just gone away, because we know that can happen. We know that sometimes bird flus cross over into humans, and we’ve seen what happens in the past, where millions of people die. So we can’t take our eye off that ball either.”

    Zimmer sees the ebola outbreak as a wake-up call and hopes the takeaway will be a deeper understanding of how animals and humans trade viruses.

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