Ebola Fears Supported by Ignorance…and History

Conner Mansfield, Mercer University College of Pharmacy Class of 2016

The transport of Ebola patients Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol to Emory University Hospital captured the attention of the American public. Social media users responded with panicked conviction. Fueled by their imaginations, Americans can be forgiven for their ignorance of a disease that is rarely relevant to them. 

Ebola is an exotic and terrifying disease, if not an immediate threat to US public health. Mortality rates are consistently high across disease caused by all strains of the virus. Secondary transmission requires contact with bodily fluids preventing catastrophic spread of the virus.

Ebola will probably not remain a concern for Americans, at least for now. However, that does not mean that a hemorrhagic fever did not play an essential role in shaping North America’s past.

Infectious disease decimated the native populations of Mexico in the 1500s. Two of the most devastating outbreaks in 1545 and 1576 were hemorrhagic fevers called cocolitzli. These fevers could have been caused by an Arenavirus.

Like Ebola, secondary transmission of most Arenaviruses requires contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. The outbreaks of cocolitzli illustrate the large number of conditions that must be satisfied for a similar virus to have far-reaching consequences.

This Ebola outbreak is extremely unlikely to significantly impact Americans. While it is difficult to say precisely what caused cocolitzli, coclitzli underlines the frightening impact that these viruses could have under the right circumstances.

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