Ebola – this word once referred to an obscure river in Zaire, which is now, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The word itself means, Black River in the local language, Lingala. The Belgian microbiologist Peter Piot and his colleagues were working in the DRC in 1976 when the first human outbreak of the virus occurred. Late one night, over Kentucky bourbon, Piot, and his colleagues were discussing what to name the frightening new disease. They decided that calling it the “Yambuku Virus,” after the village where it first appeared, would be bad form as it would have stigmatized the village forever. Already, they knew that whatever name they bestowed on the virus would be spoken with fear and, as we see in the United States today, with excitement.
It has been stated that Congress has its twitching, reactionary foot on the throat of Tom Frieden, from the Center for Disease Control (CDC). President Obama has canceled his fundraising trip and Rick Perry has curtailed his voyage because the big men need their big boots on the ground, to combat the Ebola virus.
Meanwhile, we stare transfixed into the pixels of the big cable news corporations, such as Channel 2 Action News, which broadcasts what appears to be a police chase involving an ambulance on the highway. This is no police chase, however, it is a Channel 2 helicopter with its camera trained on the ambulance following it up the highway to Emory University Hospital. This is no ordinary ambulance: for inside it was a sick individual, who resembles a spacewalker, as he is helped out of the ambulance. This person who’s every step is recorded from the helicopter to millions od mesmerized eyes, has the Ebola Virus.
Ebola is the current national fetish. If 40 to 50 percent of cases did not involve bleeding from the mucous membranes, people may not be as interested. SARS was scary, but not nearly as dramatic. AIDS is boring because the infected die from illnesses our functioning immune systems fight off every day.
But Ebola is different. This virus has captured national consciousness in a new way. Ebola has come out of the jungles of Africa, as an exotic pathogen that causes organ failure and that hemorrhaging that so captivates people. It has been killing hundreds of Africans for almost fifty years.
Now, it is in Texas and has killed one person in American. The plot thickens, and with rising excitement, fear, and curiosity. People talk about the disease more, more and more. The word, Ebola is now uttered millions of times a day, not Yambuku, as Piot and his colleagues decided.
That fateful late night, in 1976, one of Piot’s fellow scientists, suggested that they examine a map on the wall and name the virus after the nearest river, which at the time (it was, in Piot’s words, “three or four in the morning,” and remember, they had been drinking that Kentucky bourbon) appeared to be the Ebola River. Only later, was it discovered that the map was inaccurate and, the Ebola River was in fact, not the closest river to Yambuku. However, the name stuck; Ebola. It is indeed curious that by the tipsy oversight of Western scientists, in 1976, a Lingala expression now, in 2014. After thousands of Africans have succumbed, rattled their vocal cords, as the apocalyptic imaginations run wild. People’s fetish with the Ebola virus that has recently begun to threaten us.
Opinion by John McNabb
Image Courtesy of NIAID’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License