When Ebola becomes synonymous with terrorist threat

CitizenPost, Translated by Perrine Berthier
28 Septembre 2014

Between the alleged attach on a US air marshal with a syringe eight days ago, and health authorities overwhelmed by an unprecedented number of cases since its discovery, the Ebola virus is now the subject of concern about possible worldwide transmission. An article published by the New York Times questions experts on the possibility of people using the deadly virus as a means of biological terrorism.

Crédit DR
Crédit DR
Pictures and figures are everywhere. The epidemic that has been rampant in West Africa has killed more people in the past six months than since it was first identified in 1976. The WHO is concerned about deaths among medical staff. Pictures of an infected patient roaming around the Liberian capital are circulating on the web and illustrating the difficulties of establishing quarantine.

The incident alleged to have happened at Lagos airport on the 7th added a layer of terrorism to an already tense climate. A US federal air marshal was purportedly attacked with a syringe before boarding – a story that Nigerian airport authorities are refuting. Analysis didn't reveal any trace of pathogens in the presumed victim's body; however, the FBI is still investigating.

Tools for a catastrophic scenario

Though there may still be some light to shed upon this event, it hasn't prevented the New York Times from considering it a question of biological warfare. In what measure could an armed group isolate and develop the Ebola virus on a large scale ? When posed this question, retired major general Dr. Philip K. Russell said, “The bad guys are more likely to kill themselves trying to develop it.”

Dr. Ryan C.W. Hall, specialist in psychiatric trauma related to bioterrorism, tackles the issue the other way around : “To truly isolate the virus takes a lot of resources. But if you have people who are willing to die and willing to inject themselves with the blood of someone who has been infected, you don't need a Bio Safety Level 4 lab.”

A French virologist quoted by Slate discussed some of the factors involved in such an issue, estimating that “progression of the African epidemic and the media coverage it's creating is changing the situation. Other scenarios of voluntary contamination are possible; they are not our duty to examine.” The idea of a deliberate act of contamination is thus not unthinkable; yet, covering such scenarios in the media can engender a perverse effect on the social psyche, from economic disorder to collective psychosis.

This is a feeling clearly sustained by the aggressiveness of the virus. After a variable incubation period (from 2 days to 3 weeks), Ebola provokes acute fever and hemorrhaging, killing 90% of infected people within two weeks. Contamination, however, can only happen when there is contact with infected fluids; the town of Conakry in Guinea is an example that collective sanitary measures can effectively impede viral threats.

Be aware that at this time, there is no treatment for the Ebola virus that isn't experimental.

Article published originally in CitizenPost, a partner of Le Journal International.