Archives for category: History

Here’s a single PDF of the entire “Ebola’s History” series: Ebola’s_History

I’ve finally finished what sprawled into an eight part series “summarizing” the history of Ebola. This project, which was originally supposed to be a quick summary in order to contextualize the current outbreak in West Africa, in the end turned into a far more ambitious undertaking, but I hope it succeeded in compiling some useful information on Ebola’s long-span history from medical, media, and social science sources, and is as straight forward and accessibly written as I intended it to be. Thanks for reading and check back soon for more posts on my time in Lagos.


Sculpture at Makerere University, Uganda (Mark Duerksen, 2011)


This is the final post in an eight part series on the history of Ebola. For immediate information about how to help prevent the further spread of Ebola and keep yourself safe please consult and share the Ebola Facts website.

As we are well aware, this year the two-decade trend of isolated outbreaks in Central Africa every few years has been broken by a much larger and more prolonged series of cases in West Africa. The outbreak began when a two-year-old child in southeastern Guinea contracted the most deadly species of the virus (Zaire ebolavirus) in early December last year, putting into motion the initially slow and then progressively faster spread of the virus to Liberia, Sierra Leone, and now Nigeria. Unlike the past twenty year’s string of Central African outbreaks that were each unique and separate despite initial speculation otherwise, this year’s West African outbreak does seem to be the result of a single index case followed by human-to-human transmission. Here’s a good time-lapse map of that transmission through West Africa. Summaries of the specifics of this year’s outbreak are widely available online, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but I will offer a few pieces of analysis based on the history I’ve covered in the previous posts.

IMG_5260Matt Ridley gets it all wrong for The Times

First there’s a need to correct a couple of pieces of misinformation that continue to circulate with this year’s outbreak. A more minor error is that this is not in fact the first time that there has been a West African case of Ebola as many news outlets have reported. Previously a zoologist working in Cote d’Ivoire caught the Tai Forest species of the virus and then fully recovered in Switzerland. Second and more importantly, the virus has not been previously restrained to only rural, remote areas of Central Africa. As we’ve seen, two of the deadliest previous outbreaks occurred when the virus struck the relatively large cities and regional hubs of Kikwit and Gulu. These Central African cities might not have quite the same level of road infrastructure linking them to other urban centers as West African cities do (although I know plenty of people board buses every day in Gulu bound for several cities and countries), but these two cases do provide a precedent for urban outbreaks of Ebola. And although these previous urban outbreaks were incredibly deadly, the cities were able to eventually contain the virus’s spread within a matter of months. So, in searching for a reason why this year’s outbreak has spread so far and killed so many, the answer is not as simple as stating that this is the first time the virus has appeared in an urbanized setting.

Other explanations have included the slow recognition and response time of international medical teams. Again, a look at the history of the virus shows that response time is not a unique factor in considering why this outbreak is so much worse. In the cases of the 1976 Sudan and Zaire outbreaks and several subsequent episodes, international teams were slow to recognize the virus’s appearance and did not arrive on the scene until after the local communities had already contained the spread of the virus. This fact suggests that one reason for the extent and deadliness of this year’s outbreak might be partly found in the local community’s responses. As Hewlett observed in Gulu, the DRC, and Gabon, many communities in Central Africa possess long practiced social procedures such as quarantine and modified burial practices that they employ when their communities recognize that they are dealing with an especially virulent affliction. I do not know if communities in West Africa have similar procedures, but it would not be surprising if they don’t due to the fact that they’re not used to seeing diseases like Ebola, or alternatively that they did previously possess similar response techniques but that the long civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone destroyed that local knowledge as violence and insecurity ripped communities apart.

Whatever the cause(s) behind the severity of this year’s outbreak, the fact is Zaire ebolavirus’s path through West Africa has been more deadly than all previous Ebola cases combined, and I have to admit that when I initially heard that the virus had arrived in Lagos—the impetus for this series of posts—I feared that Ebola might finally find in the fast life, international networks, and rancid infrastructure of Sub-Saharan Africa’s largest city what HIV/AIDS found in the reused medical needles, sex trade, and migrant networks of 1970s Kinshasa and Brazzaville—that is, the lethal mixture of social and environmental conditions that would allow the virus to eventually explode into a global epidemic.


Trash disposal in Lagos (Mark Duerksen 2014)

Being a Central African originating RNA virus linked to primates and transmitted through body fluids, comparisons of Ebola to HIV/AIDS were bound to occur. However there are several important differences that will likely yet prevent Ebola from boiling into an epidemic the way HIV/AIDS did. The first significant difference is the length of time from infection to fatality (or recovery for 10-60% of Ebola patients). HIV can hole up and multiply inside an infected person’s immune system for months, years, or even a decade, slowly destroying T-cells until it has killed so many that doctors consider the person to have developed AIDS. Over these months or years while HIV festers into AIDS, a person with HIV may be completely asymptomatic, but all the while still able spread the virus through sexual contact or blood transfusions. This slow and silent development timeline means that an HIV carrier might not even realize that he or she has become infected for years or even a decade and all the while be transmitting the virus to numerous people, allowing HIV to creep into a critical mass of carriers before it is even detected. This quiet buildup of an infected mass of people is exactly what happened for decades in Central Africa, and by the time doctors “discovered” HIV/AIDS, it was already an epidemic throughout the region.

Ebola on the other hand asymptomatically incubates for a few days or up to a few weeks, during which time the victim cannot transmit the virus to another person. Once symptoms develop after the incubation period, the patient’s health declines quickly and death is then generally a matter of days away, leaving only a very small window to further spread the virus (although it can still be contracted from infected corpses, so that is an additional concern and why burial practices are crucial to containing Ebola). One important note here is that those who recover from Ebola can still transmit the virus through semen or possibly breast milk for a number of weeks. While Ebola is easier to transmit during its small contagious window than HIV/AIDS is during its prolonged window, Ebola still has a low transmission rate,[1] requiring direct contact with infected bodily fluids, and the virus cannot be transmitted through the air the way respiratory diseases can be. Despite the horrific extent and fatality numbers of Ebola in West Africa, the virus will likely burn itself out due to its short contagious window (although it might take severe quarantine and curfew measures as we’re now seeing in West Africa) before it ever reaches a critical, completely uncontrollable mass in the way HIV did.

Perhaps the most optimism-inspiring difference between HIV/AIDS and Ebola is the two viruses’ rates of mutation. While both likely simmered in the forests of Central Africa long before scientists officially detected and classified them, Ebola’s genetic structure has hardly changed since the first confirmed cases in 1976 while HIV/AIDS has mutated incredibly rapidly, making treatment for HIV/AIDS much more difficult to square with virus’s continually changing configuration. Ebola’s steady genetic structure makes the prospects for a cure much more promising, and as we’ve seen with the initial success of ZMapp, cures seem to be on the horizon. Now we just have to hope treatments can be produced and distributed asap because, while Ebola is not likely to become a global epidemic, it is causing untold suffering in West Africa that we likely won’t realize the true extent of for some time yet. Ebola’s destructive path through West Africa includes not only the direct victims of the virus, but also those caught in the clashes between soldiers enforcing quarantines and those trying to flee its path, survivors who are now shunned by their communities, communities that no longer trust doctors and hospitals, businesses and entire economies that have taken a massive hit, and medical infrastructure throughout the region that has been depleted, abandoned, and looted, causing other illnesses to proliferate in the absence of treatment facilities. Still it is worth noting the statistics on HIV/AIDS and other deadly diseases deaths per day dwarf Ebola deaths in the Ebola-affected countries–a reminder that those preventable diseases also require immediate attention and that serious long term work to repair medical infrastructure and communities’ relations with medical personnel will be imperative to West Africans’ health once this outbreak can be contained.

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[1] Daniel G Bausch, et al., “Assessment of the Risk of Ebola Virus Transmission from Bodily Fluids and Fomites,” Journal of Infectious Disease, 196(), S142-S147. Available online:

As social scientists studied communities affected by the slew of outbreaks that swept through Central Africa in the 1990s and 2000s, virologists began to wonder if the unprecedented number of cases were somehow connected. Initially they developed a theory that a single Ebola outbreak from a single index case was slowly simmering and spreading through Zaire (and then DRC), Gabon, Congo, CAR, Sudan, and Uganda. The reality that the outbreaks included several species of the virus and a multiple suspected index cases connected mostly to the handling of animal carcasses squashed the theory of a single outbreak, but still the question remained, why this sudden and prolonged string of separate and distinct outbreaks?

Scientists next looked for larger environmental patterns that might connect the Central African cases. Most outbreaks of Ebola occur in between the dry and wet seasons, but there has been speculation that broader climatic event might be connected to the sustained spike in cases. The 1976 simultaneous outbreaks of separate species only a few hundred miles from each other also points to an environmental occurrence activating the virus and allowing it to jump from the reservoir to monkeys and humans. Scientists have been studying satellite photographs of the Congo Basin from the past few decades in an attempt to detect any environmental changes that overlap spatially with flare ups of Ebola. These studies have found that especially arid dry seasons disrupt the ecosystem in the jungle, leading animals to move beyond their normal confines in search of food and water, which results in increased human-animal contact.[1] If this is accurate, global warming has serious implications for Ebola outbreaks.

Another study that may lend further support to the environmental activation hypothesis was conducted in 2010 when scientists examined the genomes of living African bats and rodents and found ancient “fragments” of filoviruses in their genomes. Through recent advances in the fascinating subfield of paleovirology the researchers were able to estimate that filoviruses are likely tens of millions of years old based on the genetic remnants of the disease shared by the mammals coupled with the scientists’ knowledge of the mammals’ shared evolutionary trees. If rodents and bats have carried filoviruses for tens of millions of years as they migrated across the world, it’s no surprise that strains of Ebola exist in both Sub-Saharan Africa and the Philippines. The study goes on to suggest that other rodents, marsupials, and bats may carry yet unknown forms of filoviruses in the Americas.[2] The fact that we’ve only seen the virus pass from reservoir to human in Central Africa and the Philippines, lends credence to the idea that it is something particular to the Central African environment (that the Philippines may share) that is “activating” or allowing the virus to jump from the reservoir to larger mammals. Could global warming activate latent filoviruses in other regions of world? [Or, alternatively perhaps other New World strains are similar to the Reston species in that they don’t cause human illness when spread to humans and therefore haven’t been detected yet.]

As promising as the research has been into detecting an environmental link, in focusing on identifying climatic trends connecting the past twenty years of outbreaks, scientists have neglected to consider the often-horrific human history of Central Africa as a potential source of explanation for the string of outbreaks. In the aftermath of the Rwandan civil war and 1994 genocide, the deadliest conflict since World War II unfolded across Central Africa, killing over four million people, displacing many millions more, and dragging in soldiers from throughout the region. The First and Second Congo Wars have not received nearly as much scholarly attention as they require, but books such as Africa’s World War written by Gerard Prunier begin to document the devastating bloodbath that occurred as troops from Rwanda and Uganda marched across lawless Zaire to evict Mobutu from his rotting seat of power in Kinshasa. Two decades later, the conflict continues to this day with fighting between Kagame’s Rwanda and rebel groups such as M23 in eastern DRC. Additionally South Sudan has suffered its own bloody history that persists despite independence from northern Sudan, and the Lord’s Resistance Army has terrorized Northern Uganda/CAR for many years, displacing numerous people.


Charcoal mural in an IDP camp near Gulu, Uganda (Mark Duerksen, 2009)

The result of the countless armed conflicts in Central Africa has been an upheaval of societies across region, causing an increased likelihood of human exposure to Ebola as starving refugees and soldiers turned to bush meat while they roamed through the Congo’s dense forests, and as they displaced animals by burning and logging forests, which may have put primates in greater contact with both humans and the reservoir. It would be interesting to see what further spatial research tracing the conflict and the virus over the past 20 years might reveal.

Scientists’ omission of the deadliest conflict since WWII from their causal considerations and the dismal results of the ethics review of Ebola research (previous post) suggests a troubling trend where scientists studying Ebola in reality know very little about the region and the people affected by the virus.

[1] Stephen Pincock, “Seeing Ebola from Space,” The Scientist, May 1, 2006. Available online:

[2] Derek J Taylor, et al., “Filoviruses are ancient and integrated into mammalian genomes,” BMC Evolutionary Biology, 10(2010), 1471-2148.

In 1994 the Ebola’s eerie silence was broken when it reappeared in Gabon and Cote d’Ivoire. The single human case in Cote d’Ivoire occurred when a 34-year-old female Swiss ethologist contracted the disease while conducting a necropsy on a chimp that had died from a suspected outbreak of Ebola amongst a troupe of Chimpanzees in the Tai Forest near Liberia. Once symptoms appeared, physicians quickly transferred her to Switzerland where she soon made a full recovery without infecting anyone else (a precedent for the two Americans with Ebola currently being transferred back to the US). [1] This solitary case is significant because it is the only known human instance of Tai ebolavirus, and, prior to 2014, was the only known Ebola case in West Africa despite many news agencies reporting that this year’s outbreak is the first West African Ebola episode.

In Central Africa, the three chimpanzee-linked cases that occurred in Gabon between 1994 and 1995 were all relatively isolated, each infecting less than 60 people, but one victim did travel to Johannesburg where he infected a nurse who died days later without further passing on the disease.[2] This episode provides a precedent for fears that the 2014 outbreak may travel far beyond the initial index case via international air travel, however the case was quickly contained to a single transmission.

[1] Tara Waterman, “Ebola Cote d’Ivoire Outbreaks,” Stanford Honors Thesis, 1999. Online:

[2] Xavier Pourrut et al., “The natural history of Ebola virus in Africa,” Microbes and Infection, 7(2005), 1005-1014. Online:

This post is the second part in a short series I’m writing on the history of Ebola. For immediate information about how to help prevent the further spread of Ebola and keep yourself safe please consult and share the Ebola Facts website.

While there are numerous virology and pathology articles trying to pin down the scientific facts of the elusive Ebola virus, social scientists do not seem to have thoroughly studied the dreaded virus…and it’s not hard to imagine why historians and anthropologists would shy away from field research on a disease like Ebola.

I haven’t researched Ebola in the field, and when reading this historical summary please note that I am not a doctor, nor am I a historian of science, so please consult the sources cited for more thorough information. That being said, as compellingly argued in a recent Journal of African History article on the social history and biology of HIV/AIDS in Africa, scientific understanding and treatment is often enhanced by a greater awareness of the social and cultural contexts in which diseases have developed and spread. These kind of historical insights are why I hope I’m able to offer something by giving an account of Ebola from an African history perspective without having an advanced background in biology.

However a quick synopsis of Ebola’s basic biology is of course necessary. Ebola virus disease (EVB) or Ebola hemorrhagic fever (EHF) is an RNA virus that is part of the Filoviridae Family of diseases of which there are three members—Marburg Virus, Cueva Virus, and, our concern, Ebola Virus. Within its branch of the Filoviridae tree, Ebola comes in five species: Zaire ebolavirus (EBOV, discovered in1976), Sudan ebolavirus (SUDV, 1976), Tai Forest ebolavirus (TAFV, 1994), Reston ebolavirus (RESTV, 1989), and Bundibugyo ebolavirus (BDBV, 2007). Amongst these five strains, Zaire, Sudan, and Bundibugyo are responsible for the deadly outbreaks in Africa, while Reston has never caused human illness or death despite several people testing positive for it (they remain asymptomatic), and there has been only one human known case of Tai and the victim fully recovered within six weeks.[1]

Ebola is a public health nightmare because it can be contracted easily and is almost always fatal. Ebola is introduced into human populations from contact with the highly contagious blood or body fluids of infected animals such as monkeys or bats, and then spreads through human-to-human transmission. There is also some inconclusive evidence that the virus can spread through airborne nasal and throat secretions.[2] The signs and symptoms of Ebola have been well publicized, and they include the sudden onset of fever, sore throat, extreme weakness, headache, and muscle pain within 2 to 21 days of infection. Additional symptoms soon appear that make transmission more likely, including vomiting, diarrhea, rashes, both internal (gastrointestinal) and external (gums, nose) bleeding.[3] There is no known treatment for Ebola (although vaccines are in the works), and once the onset of symptoms occur, victims usually die within 5 days with Zaire ebolavirus’s fatality rate nearing 90% and Sudan’s being slightly less between 53% and 66%.[4]


Bats on an island in Lake Kivu (Mark Duerksen 2014)

One of the greatest mysteries surrounding Ebola has been identifying the “reservoir”—the animal that asymptomatically carries the virus between outbreaks, allowing it to go silent for years at a time. Scientists have come to consider fruit bats as the most likely reservoir candidates after capturing and testing thousands of African animals, and after numerous attempts to infect various animals and plants, which confirmed fruit bats could contract and carry the virus.[5] However most human cases are thought to be the result of exposure (hunting, eating) to infected nonhuman primates and duikers (small deer) that have acquired the virus from bats.[6]

[1] WHO, “Ebola virus disease Fact Sheet,” April 2014. Online:

[2] C. J. Peters and J. W. LeDue, “An Introduction to Ebola: The Virus and the Disease,” The Journal of Infectious Diseases, 179 (1999), ix-xvi. Online:

[3] WHO, “Ebola virus disease Fact Sheet,” April 2014. Online:

[4] A. S. Carroll et al., “Molecular Evolution of Viruses of the Family Filoviridae Based on 97 Whole-Genome Sequences,” Journal of Virology, 87(2013), 2608-2616. Online:

[5] Ibid; and Xavier Pourrut et al., “The natural history of Ebola virus in Africa,” Microbes and Infection, 7(2005), 1005-1014. Online:

[6] A. S. Carroll et al., “Molecular Evolution of Viruses of the Family Filoviridae Based on 97 Whole-Genome Sequences,” Journal of Virology, 87(2013), 2608-2616. Online:

A few quick updates:

First off, a big thank you to The Guardian for including me in their updated list of The Best City Blogs from around the World (link to Arcade Africa under general sites, fifth from the left). I’ve gotten a lot of traffic (relative to next to none previously) through their link recently!

Secondly, a few days ago was the two year anniversary of starting this blog. Yay. Two years ago I was fresh out of college and hadn’t even applied to grad school yet, but I already knew the topics I’ve been following here were something I wanted to learn more about and share information on. Here’s to hoping it’s still going in two more years.

And finally, an update on a project I’ve been following closely and have posted about before: it looks like the much delayed NYC Museum for African Art has suffered another setback and is now scaling back plans for the Museum’s architectural embellishments in order to cut costs since its fundraising has dried up. Billionaires, and millionaires, open your wallets and fund this worthy project that will inform and thrill thousands and thousands of visitors with Africa’s rich art history. It only needs $11 million more…a single Fang sculpture (below) alone recently auctioned for nearly half that much.

Again, more posts on Lagos/Nigeria to come soon–working on them in a word doc now–so stay tuned.

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Ian McIntosh is examining 12th C. coins that appear to have originated in Kilwa and ended up in AustraliaImage

Image source (photograph:  Powerhouse Museum Sydney)

Great slideshow of a historic city that has been dark to the outside world for almost two decades. 



….And a Tedx event just took place in Mogadishu, which included the story of Mogadishu’s first drying cleaning business



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Nyere’s utopian capital that was never fully realized

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