Several months ago, friends of mine were planning a trip to Liberia. They were just about to head over when they got the news that there was an Ebola outbreak. At the time, they contacted me to find out just how safe or unsafe it was in Liberia. They knew more about what to expect on the trip to Liberia, but they were unsure of what to expect in terms of Ebola infecting as many people as it had. At the time, the death toll was in the hundreds (recent estimates suggest that the death toll is over 4,000).1 I began trying to help them understand a few things about Ebola so they could make an informed decision. Since that time, I have noticed a number of websites have arisen with misinformation and sensationalism that misleads the public about how severe a threat Ebola is.
What Is Ebola?
To be clear, Ebola is a significant virus with a high mortality rate. Therefore, it is important to have the facts straight about what it is in light of the more recent spread of this deadly virus to two new continents. Ebola is a member of the Filoviridae, which means that it is an RNA virus that carries an envelope. The name Filoviridae comes from the Latin meaning “threadlike,” which describes the characteristic photographs of these viruses.2 Members of this family of viruses are particularly well known for causing hemorrhagic fevers.3 Specifically, hemorrhagic fevers display a particularly high temperature (more than 38.6°C or 101.5°F) and some form of hemorrhaging (i.e., bleeding or bruising).4 The bleeding can happen internally, externally, or possibly not even at all (though extremely rare).
While the news and even popular science fiction pay particular attention to the bloody nature of this virus, it is important to underscore that this disease begins with a fever. Having said that, not all people with fevers, unusual bruising, or bleeding have Ebola. It is the right combination of high fever with bleeding (and possibly other symptoms) that is looked for to determine whether Ebola is the causative agent.
Some erroneous reports online perpetuate that Ebola is an airborne risk. Ebola is not airborne and cannot be found in respiratory droplets. The typical route of transmission is by coming in contact with the bodily fluids of an infected individual. While it is not airborne by definition, the particularly scary aspect to this virus is that it has such a low infectious dose with such a high mortality rate. This perfect combination has led some to consider Ebola a possible bioterror threat. The concept of a bioterror threat initially sounds ominous, but there are a few additional aspects to consider regarding the normal route of Ebola infection.
The Ebola mortality rate is usually between 70% and 90%, but can be as low as 50%.5 As a result, Ebola is a very deadly virus and is classified at the highest biosafety level (BSL-4) because there is no known cure. While it kills such a high percentage of those that are infected, there is a small minority of people who mysteriously survive the infection. The only available therapy is supportive clinical care.6 The primary cause of death is a drop in blood pressure and shock. The disease does not present itself in an infected individual for 2 to 21 days. Once a person begins presenting symptoms, they can spread the virus. The disease progresses rather swiftly once symptoms present, so time is a key component to getting any form of treatment. It seems that this time element between symptoms and supportive care treatment is at least one reason why the first US patient ended up dying. Since Ebola causes death so quickly, it is not a popular choice for bioterror agents. While it could be imagined that an engineered version of Ebola could be weaponized, that threat is more difficult to accomplish on a practical level.
When the infected missionary doctor was brought back to the U.S. for treatment, many were concerned for knowingly bringing an infected person to virgin soil and hoping to prevent an outbreak on American soil. Thankfully, Dr. Brantly recovered, but it was not because there is a solid cure to the disease—he was an exception to the rule. Since Ebola is so deadly, I think of it as a bad virus. By bad virus, I mean “bad” from the virus’s perspective: It is so deadly that it has a hard time spreading from one host to the next.
When I initially heard that there was an outbreak in Liberia, I was torn about whether to tell my friends to go or not. At the time, there were a few hundred fatalities and it seemed like the outbreak could be nearing an end. I realized that outbreaks of Ebola happen periodically and fatalities usually remain in the hundreds each time. Since Ebola is so deadly, it does not take many cases to make the news. Until recently, the largest Ebola outbreak was less than 500 individuals; so the current outbreak of over 4,000 deaths is alarming. This particular outbreak is not the usual Ebola outbreak and has changed the history of the world on a number of different levels. Amid all the questions concerning this particular outbreak, many people will wonder, “Where is God in all this?”
Is God at Fault?
With the wickedness of this particular virus, people often wonder where God is amid all this death, disease, pain, and suffering. It is imperative to understand several key concepts as we approach an answer to this question.
First, we must understand the goodness of God. The psalmist writes, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good” (Psalm 107:1). We must, therefore, also be committed to the idea of God’s goodness. The idea of God’s goodness emanates from Him in the Creation Week. God uses the word good to describe the original creation six times (every day was pronounced “good” except for Day Two) and the last verse of Genesis 1 describes the original creation as “very good” after God had created man in His image. God’s goodness can sometimes be difficult to see in some created things (e.g., viruses in general, but Ebola specifically).
Viruses are obligate intracellular parasites in the world today. This particular lifestyle presents some complications for an originally good creation. The question becomes one of whether there is any kind of good that can come from viruses.7 Researchers at the University of Arizona found a particularly interesting relationship with wasps, aphids, and viral-infected bacteria. The news agency writes, “The term ‘beneficial virus’ sounds like an oxymoron.”8 Without going into too much detail, the viral-infected bacteria helped protect aphids from attack by wasps. A second intriguing observation comes from the evolutionist science writer Carl Zimmer. In one article, he highlights how almost all mammals have one or two genes that appear to have come from a virus and are essential to proper development of the placenta.9 If our genome did not have this bit of apparently viral DNA, then none of us would ever be born. So we have examples of good viruses and essential viruses, which helps explain how not all viruses are bad.
The reason it is important to realize that God is the Creator is because viruses are efficient machines that quit working when one part is removed.
While we can see some elements of possibly good things about viruses, it is important that we understand God is our Creator and Redeemer, not some cosmic killjoy. We read that not only did God create the world and everything in it, but that He regularly interacts with it (cf. Exodus 34:1; Joshua 10:12-13; 1 Kings 18:38; John 2:11). God is not detached from His creation. The reason it is important to realize that God is the Creator is because viruses are efficient machines that quit working when one part is removed. The machine analogy strongly supports that these were intelligently designed and meet the criteria of irreducible complexity. Irreducible complexity is an idea used to defeat a naturalistic origin of the universe by the Intelligent Design (ID) movement. The principle of irreducible complexity states that something is designed if it consists of several interacting parts that contribute to the function of the whole and the lack of one part causes the whole to effectively cease functioning. Since viruses require all their parts to function and removing one part prevents them from effectively functioning, they must be designed according to the ID movement. But if these efficient viral machines (like Ebola) were designed this way, does that mean God is working to kill us all the day long? The problem with the ID movement not recognizing the God of the Bible as the Creator is that it divorces the Creator from the creation and His work of redemption.10 This ideology strongly supports a deistic view of the universe, which does not fit what the Bible clearly teaches: theism. Would a loving God create something to kill us? God forbid. If all we do is look at the efficiency of viruses, then must one conclude that they were designed to kill us according to the ID movement.
The idea of having a Creator-Redeemer is important in understanding viruses because of the related idea that we live in a fallen world. Knowing that we live in a fallen world, we can see that God did not design viruses to kill us. We can look in Scripture and understand that viruses (like Ebola) are simply a molecular thorn and thistle (Genesis 3:18). Originally, viruses most likely were part of the very good creation. Therefore, this concept of God as Creator and Redeemer correlates well with what we observe in the few good and essential viruses in light of the many viruses causing disease. Yet in this sin-cursed world, much has gone wrong, and many organisms not designed to be pathogenic have become so.
Why Is this Outbreak Particularly Bad?
Much to the amazement of many researchers, the whole Ebola genome (DNA) has been found within the genomes of several animals (including guinea pigs, opossums, wallabies, and insect-eating bats).11 Understanding the origin of this particularly deadly virus helps explain parts of why it is so difficult to treat. If Darwinian evolution were true, then these elements should be considered junk DNA and eliminated from the gene pool by natural selection. However, the presence of these whole genomes in the genomes of other organisms suggests they do something under normal conditions that we have yet to observe. Does that mean that this particular outbreak of Ebola can be traced back to one of these animals? I don’t know. No one knows. It is particularly difficult to determine the exact origin of this outbreak because no one was there to observe it. One of the particularly frightening recent papers highlights a significant amount of variation among 99 Ebola genomes sequenced from this recent outbreak. The variation between patients is a strong testimony to the rapid microevolution of these organisms.12 (“Microevolution” here refers only to variations in the virus. Despite these variations, the Ebola virus remains Ebola, and it remains a virus. It does not evolve into anything else.) I strongly suspect that the lack of a proofreading mechanism of the genome combined with poor hygiene practices in developing and third-world countries has made for the perfect storm with this outbreak unfolding before our very eyes.
What Can We Do?
I regularly teach microbiology to undergraduates, and I often comment to them about how Ebola is included on my short list of things that I am afraid of. President Obama recently decided to act on the Ebola outbreak by sending troops to western Africa to assist in controlling the outbreak.13 It seems that the President decided to take action after some communication reached back to him via the missionary Dr. Kent Brantly: It was a missionary, trained in the United States, who was doing something about the outbreak by treating patients and in communicating his story in such a way to motivate political figures. Dr. Brantly and other medical missionaries have received strong criticism lately from the secular humanists for no other reason than because the missionaries are Christians.14 The secular humanists are envious that Christians are being portrayed well in the media. In many ways, I commend medical missionaries like Dr. Brantly who decided to take the call of God seriously and use medicine to reach people for Jesus Christ. Ultimately, unlike those with a biblical worldview, the secular humanists have no clear moral basis to put themselves at risk to help the downtrodden, sick, and infirm. If we are just the product of random chance processes over time, as Darwinian evolution asserts, then why not let the sick die off so the strong will survive? However, since we are not the byproducts of random chance processes, we should conduct ourselves altogether differently.
I think it is important that Christians get involved with helping in several ways. If Christians have the training to help the sick, then they should talk with our Lord and determine whether He would have them go or stay. If Christians do not have the training to help the sick, then they have a couple of options. There should be a concerted effort to find reputable organizations that perform medical missions and give financially to help send the necessary medical supplies where they are needed most. But most importantly, it is important that we pray for the sick. We live in a sin-cursed world with death, disease, pain, and suffering. Those that contract this deadly virus will most likely meet their Maker soon. We should pray for the missionaries remaining in the country who are on the ground, meeting needs, to give them boldness to share the gospel under such dire consequences. What a wonderful opportunity to share with these sick and dying people that they do not have to spend eternity separated from a loving God.
This information is intended for general education purposes only and is not intended as professional medical advice. The information should not be relied upon as a substitute for medical advice from your doctor or other healthcare professional. If you have specific questions about any medical condition, diagnosis, or treatment, you should consult your doctor or other healthcare provider or go to a hospital.