A Bug Named “Bo”

Most newspaper headlines aren’t cause for celebration. Gone are the days of announcements of unconditional surrender by the enemies of freedom–hooray!–with the corresponding photo of some fresh-faced American serviceman grabbing the nearest Parisian nurse and laying a big kiss on her. The worse the better these days, as far as the news is concerned. Bad events, or at least alarming ones, can naturally grab the attention of the average fat-head much faster than a measured appraisal of complex problems. Throw in some pictures of celebrities at the beach, and it is all the news that’s fit to print. The majority of strife tends to occur in far away places with strange names by people who yell gibberish, like Homs, Syria or Astoria, Queens. Rarely does the scary stuff drop into the front yard. That was why I was somewhat alarmed when I read the front page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about a month or so ago and it declared, “Ebola Case Comes To Emory.” Which, since I live near Emory, meant that I read the headline as, “Ebola Case Comes to Your Neighborhood.”

And people around here were touchy about the traffic. I could only imagine the stampede now that the world’s most notorious filovirus and its unlucky host were dropping in for a few weeks of quarantined rest. Then I remembered that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention is also right down the block, and that place has been housing some of the most merciless microbes known to man for the last sixty years. Ebola has always been a neighbor in our community, along with a parade of noroviruses, arenaviruses, roboviruses, filoviruses, coronaviruses, rhinoviruses, parasites, bacteria and fungi that they regularly study and store. It was a wonder that the property values had remained so high, considering.

In fact, Emory had built their special isolation unit for treating infectious diseases because of their proximity to the Center for Disease Control. If some sleepy research scientist accidentally ingests a vial of Marburg virus while studying his cup of coffee (an honest mixup) then they could just rush him a few doors down and seal him up. The newspaper story about Dr. Kent Brantly, the infected missionary on his way from Liberia (or thereabouts) was bad timing. The CDC had been caught in a few public relations stumbles when it was discovered that they had sent some heinous flu strains out to a few non-secure laboratories, and someone had stored a container of smallpox like most of us would just dump an old pair of shoes. I watched the news footage of Dr. Brantly being carefully unloaded at the doors of the hospital, suited up like an astronaut in his specially contained jumpsuit, but it was almost like I could imagine him the next day wandering around Emory village in a tee-shirt and shorts, delirious, trying to stanch a nosebleed while the doctors ran around like mental patients, trying to figure out who left the back door open.

Before I cause a panic with my hypothetical rendering of a bleeding ebola patient wandering through the neighborhood due to gross negligence, I should say that it isn’t exactly fair to lump Emory Hospital and its medical staff in with a couple of oversights by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention just because they are a few blocks away from each other. I do it for the humor, which is a damn strange thing to say, now that I think about it. Although when it comes to the public’s dread of dangerous diseases the idea of fairness has little or no weight. Once the public’s faith in the scientific community has been rattled, particularly in regard to institutions like the CDC that deal with biohazards and killer proteins, then the whole situation is just a few wet sneezes away from total chaos. I feared that our quiet, erudite, little pocket of Atlanta, with its dogwoods and stately magnolias could go, almost overnight, to a scene out of Jose Saramago’s Blindness, which is an uplifting story about the selfless fellowship and charitable beauty of the human spirit in the face of a strange and harrowing disease. (Or the completely polluted, exact fucking opposite of that. It’s a good book. I recommend it.)

Luckily, because the end of the summer finds me in a lowdown, dirty swamp of procrastination in regards to finishing these blogs, the two ebola patients being treated at Emory had been released after making a full recovery, without any absurd mishaps, and before I could accidentally set off a panic. The treatment was a success. Dr. Brantly and another missionary were free of the virus. We were told it was safe to leave the house. Still, there was something about the idea of ebola that lingered. It heaped a big dose of dread on the rational populace. Even though we were assured that the virus was extremely difficult to contract, we all still felt that catching ebola was about as easy as catching a gently tossed beach ball. Why?

There were other menacing germs out there. There is that strange amoeba that breeds in warm lakes, swims up people’s noses and starts feasting on the brain. Terrifying. The hanta virus is all over D.H. Lawrence’s summer home near Taos, New Mexico. There is Chagas’ disease, caused by the “kissing” bug that releases a toxin into a person’s face that stops the heart. There are effluents in the water. Particulates in the air. Bacteria are evolving faster than our medicines can kill them. Why was ebola still the one that struck the most fear in the hearts of men? Was it just the name?

Ebola the virus is actually named after a river in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DNC), the Ebola River, whose tourism traffic, these days, has understandably been reduced to zilch. It would be like having something named Leukemia Springs or Genital Herpes National Wildlife Reserve. Mount Smallpox, that type of thing. Which is unfortunate. I’m sure the river is nice this time of year, and the tour guides, small inns, charming cottages and antique shops that sit along the banks of the African river have had to pick up stakes and go seek out more harmlessly named waterways in order to make a buck, or whatever currency the Congo trades in.

I did a little more reading and discovered that the virus itself isn’t even the direct cause of death. The real threat, apparently, is our own immune system and its scorched earth response to the ebola virus, known as a “cytokine storm.” Our bodies react so violently to infection, strafing the virus with the entire arsenal of defenses, that we end up kicking our own ass, like eating a bomb to cure some indigestion. So, I decided, our fear of ebola was really only the fear of ourselves.

Like I said, nothing to worry about, our neighborhood was declared safe by the Emory doctors. I went down to the local dispensary, which is how I refer to the local tavern when I seek to destroy germs by ingesting a fair amount of ethanol alcohol as a natural and proven antiseptic. As I walked along the deserted street I couldn’t get the old palindrome out of my head, “Able was I ere I saw Elba,” or in this case, “A lobe was I ere I saw ebola.” Indeed. I kept repeating it, kind of rolling it back and forth in my head.

I walked in, shocked at how empty the bar was. The only person sitting at the bar, I realized, was the owner, smoking a cigarette, staring miserably at the space in front of him.

“Where is everybody?” I asked.

“It’s that damn ebola,” he said. “People are freaked out. Business has really taken a beating.”

“We can’t be held hostage by the fear of this thing,” I said. “Hand me that phone. And get me a beer.”

I immediately rung up a friend of mine who works in the public relations game and said that our little college hamlet had a serious problem. The fear of the ebola bug was threatening our way of life. We had to do something about the hysteria this ebola scare was causing. We had to take back our fresh air, so to speak. I suggested a kind of block party with an ebola theme, to neutralize the menace.

“Are you out of your fucking mind?” he said. “You are aware that ebola is a Level 4 Bio-safety Hazard, with roughly an 80% mortality rate, which, as we speak is decimating entire cities across the African continent. You should be terrified.”

“Don’t get me wrong. I’m sensitive to the horrible carnage. But that is halfway around the world. Our community is ebola-free. I’m not saying we should have an infection party, but something has to be done to get people to understand that it is not at our doorstep. We should be vigilant, but we should also be reasonable. We can’t be slaves to fear.”

“We could do a song about it, like how ring-around-the-rosie got us to cool out about bubonic plague,” said my friend. He was quiet for a moment. “Let me talk to the owner,” he said.

And so it was the next week that I stopped in to the dispensary to find myself in the middle of a “Bo” party, in which people came out in solidarity to show they weren’t prisoners to the fear of ebola. A local magician was constructing fancy balloon sculptures of filoviruses instead of his normal poodles and bunnies, which most of the people either wore on their head or popped in effigy. “This is nothing,” said the magician. “I was making balloon spirochetes on Long Island last year for Lyme disease prevention week.”

The drink special of the night was called “Zmapp,” which was a shot of fireball dropped into a pint of beer. Folks danced in a weird filovirus conga line. And “Lola” by the Kinks had been re-worked by a couple of drunks and was now, “Ebola. Bo-Bo-Bo-Bo-Bola.”

“I’m not dumb but I can’t understand how you sprung up from bat shit to infect a man, oh, Ebola. Bo-Bo-Bo-Bola.”

People sang along with their crazy drinks and their crazy balloon hats. The lingering dread was put out to pasture, for the time being. We could not be beaten by the fear. Instead, ebola should fear us. These tiny viral goldbrickers needed to know they couldn’t just lounge around the human matrix, running amok, and that we were coming for them, and that hell (in the form of humanized monoclonal antibodies) was coming with us.

More Alembics to come.