On a day when the announcement of the second Dallas nurse infected with the Ebola virus frightened Americans, Carl Zimmer, the New York Times science journalist and author of the book A Planet of Viruses, provided some much-needed perspective to a Philadelphia audience.
Zimmer was the keynote speaker on October 15, 2014, for the Penn’s Vet Center for Host-Microbial Interaction two-day symposium on Microbial Communities in Health and Disease.
Zimmer started by discussing the Ebola epidemic, which started in December 2013 in West Africa and as of October 14, 2014, had infected 8,914 people and claimed the lives of 4,447 people. The current epidemic is serious, and public health experts warn that by December 2014 there could be 5,000 to 10,000 new cases a week.
However, Zimmer contrasted the current problem with well-known viral infections such as flu, HIV, and rabies which every year kill 250,000, 1.6 million, and 69,000 people, respectively. Americans who are not healthcare workers have little to fear from the Ebola virus, according to Zimmer. Past Ebola epidemics have been contained by basic public health strategies, and the current crisis can be controlled with sufficient resources.
Mass psychology experts worry that the current environment in the United States may result in public hysteria and an overwhelming of emergency rooms with the “worried well.” With the reporting of the inadequate response by the Dallas hospital that treated Thomas Eric Duncan, the Centers for Disease Control is having trouble keeping the public’s trust that experts know what they are doing. Unless there is competence and fairness with each case reported accurately and quickly and each patient treated with the maximum level of care, unnecessary public panic is possible. (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/16/health/ebolas-other-contagious-threat-hysteria.html?ref=science)
Using the Ebola virus as a starting point, Zimmer discussed how each human being hosts 100 trillion bacteria and about a trillion viruses. He stunned the Philadelphia audience by estimating that if you built a virus tower containing all the viruses on earth it would stretch 200,000,000 light years long. Although we have identified the viruses that cause human disease, we have just begun to understand other viruses. For example, Zimmer recently wrote in the New York Times about a Columbia study of 133 New York City rats, which identified 18 new species of viruses previously unknown to scientists. Most of the viruses in humans are attacking bacteria, and many of them may play an important role in controlling harmful microbes.
Zimmer ended his lecture by describing ways that viruses can benefit humans. He described how our understanding virus biology has enabled us to make Flublok vaccine against influenza, cure x-linked severe combined immunodeficiency disease, and create an animal model to study Hepatitis C, which had previously only been identified in humans.
Since humans live in a universe with many bacteria and viruses, Zimmer emphasized how important it will be for mankind to learn to co-exist with its microbial neighbors.