The worst Ebola outbreak in history is still raging in Western Africa. Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone have all taken a veritable viral punch to the gut, with over 1,000 victims infected and over 600 dead. Governments and non-governmental health organizations are struggling to contain the spread of the disease, stymied by dense urban populations and a lack of public awareness. Some communities have been resistant to outside intervention, held in thrall by rumors and misinformation and slow to respond to warnings.


With no medical cure available, the massive international relief effort is currently focused on providing supportive care to Ebola sufferers and tracing those exposed to the virus in an attempt to effectively monitor its spread. It is a difficult and distressing job, combating one of nature’s most lethal killers in an area of the world not well equipped to handle it. A World Health Organization spokesman estimated that it could take months before the outbreak is properly contained.


For many, the Ebola virus itself remains an enigma. Long considered the stuff of nightmares due to its horrific physical symptoms –fever, profuse bleeding from all conceivable bodily orifices – Ebola is a complex and challenging illness to fight. Be that as it may, in the four decades since the first recorded outbreak flared up in Zaire in 1976, fewer than two thousand human beings have succumbed to the disease. Ebola may a terrifyingly dramatic way to die, but it remains an unlikely one.


The biological tapestry behind the Ebola virus is oddly – perhaps morbidly – fascinating. In a fascinating essay for Hazlitt, science writer Leigh Cowart breaks down the science behind Ebola in hypnotic, beguiling prose. On the face of it, Leigh muses, the Ebola virus seems rather inauspicious, simply “seven structural proteins and some instructions.”


Beware the deadly subtlety. As Leigh notes,

“your body contains everything Ebola needs to make more of itself: by providing the blueprint for more virons, the virus uses your own cellular machinery to replicate. And when the cell is packed full of copies of Ebola, the virons bud off in a little envelope of your own cell membrane. Which means that, at least on the outside, the Ebola virons in your body look like you.”


The results are grim. Once inside a body and replicating away, the Ebola virus interferes with the body’s immune system to neutralize its response mechanism. Blasted, infected cells produce immense amounts of cytokines, harbingers of fever and inflammatory symptoms. Ebola travels in a rush through the host body, decimating the building blocks of life, leaving carnage in its wake.


Undergirding the biological catastrophe are a few hopeful facts. Ebola doesn’t actually spread that easily. Since the virus is transmitted by direct contact with bodily fluids and other such tangible, physical methods, proper containment, and sanitary methods can stymie Ebola’s advance. In countries with advanced medical technology, an Ebola outbreak would most likely be isolated and eradicated near-instantaneously.


All of this is cold comfort to Ebola-wracked West Africa. The virus shows no signs of slowing, and health officials have a gargantuan task ahead of them. In Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, the crisis is far from over.


What do you think about the Ebola virus? Do you find it terrifying, intriguing, or a bit of both? Start the discussion in the comments below or connect with me on Twitter @aa_murph