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World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan, with assistant director-general for health security Keiji Fukuda, on August 8, 2014 in Geneva give a press conference following a two-day emergency meeting on west Africa's Ebola epidemic.
As a species, we tend to tell ourselves stories about what scares us most. In literature, film and television we process our cultural worries and bounce them back in various forms.
With new fears arising over the emergent MERS-CoV virus and the threat of a possible epidemic, we take a selective look at the history of the viral outbreak in literature, TV, film and even video games.
'The Decameron' (1353)
This 14th-century work by Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio compiles 100 stories told by 10 different characters who have retreated from plague-ridden Florence in the time of the Black Death. Boccoccio's stories reflect the vast societal changes in Italy and Europe as a whole, brought about by the pandemic.
'The Masque of the Red Death' (1842)
Edgar Allen Poe's famous short story concerns a masquerade ball held by wealthy nobles during a terrible plague that has swept over the land. The castle abbey of the ball has been secured to keep out the plague, and the wealthy show disdain for those suffering outside the walls. But alas, history's most infamous party-crasher appears, in a blood-stained robe with a cadaverous mask. The party doesn't end well: "And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all."
'Earth Abides' (1949)
Among the first post-apocalyptic science fiction books, George R. Stewart's "Earth Abides" tells the story of Isherwood "Ish" Williams, an ecology student who returns from a solo trip to the mountains to find mankind wiped out by an airborne disease. "Earth Abides" combines Biblical elements with hard scientific conjecture about the results of overpopulation and the planet's unsparing approach to population control.
'The Seventh Seal' (1957)
Set during the time of the Black Death, Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman's film "The Seventh Seal" concerns a medieval knight (Max von Sydow) and his famous game of chess with Death himself. Bergman's film is a meditation on the theological dilemma of "the silence of God" in the face of evil and tragedy like the Plague.
'The Last Man on Earth' (1964)
The first of several film adaptations of Richard Matheson's seminal sci-fi book "I Am Legend," this Italian horror flick stars Vincent Price as Dr. Robert Morgan, last man standing after a worldwide pandemic. The book and the film represent a shift toward horror tropes in viral outbreak stories -- the infected are a kind of feral zombie/vampire hybrid. Matheson's book would later be remade in "The Omega Man" (1971) and "I Am Legend" (2007).
'The Andromeda Strain' (1971)
With the dawning of the Space Age, and our new habit of putting things into space and bringing them back, it was just a matter of time before someone connected the dots. Based on the 1969 book by Michael Crichton, "The Andromeda Strain" concerns an extraterrestrial microorganism brought back by a military satellite. The alien microbe kills by rapidly clotting the blood -- investigators later find out it was part of a government bio-weapons program. With "The Andromeda Strain," mainstream audiences were introduced to a new and abiding phobia -- pandemics caused by engineered biological weapons.
'The Stand' (1978)
Considered to be among Stephen King's best novels, "The Stand" kicks off with a terrifying sequence in which a strain of weaponized influenza is accidentally released from a government lab. The devastating super-flu bug -- dubbed Captain Trips -- eventually causes a worldwide pandemic that wipes out 99 percent of Earth's human population. The book generated a surprisingly good TV miniseries in 1993.
Warner Bros. Pictures
Starring Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo and Morgan Freeman, "Outbreak" came to theaters a year after the publication of "The Hot Zone," a non-fiction book about the Ebola virus, its variants, and the Reston virus incident outside Washington D.C. The film involves, yes, an outbreak of a fictional Ebola-like virus in the United States and is notable for the relatively big splash it made at the box office and in the media.
'Resident Evil' (1996)
The videogame franchise "Resident Evil" -- known as "Biohazard" in Japan -- began in 1996 with this hugely popular survival horror game for the PlayStation. In the game, players square off against hordes of mutated beasties infected with the T-virus pathogen, developed by the nefarious Umbrella Corporation. The game would eventually spawn, as it were, several novels, comic books, feature films and video game sequels -- including the recently released "Resident Evil: Revelations" for console systems.
Fox Searchlight Pictures
'28 Days Later' (2002)
One of many, many zombie movies with distinctly viral overtones, director Danny Boyle's horror "28 Days Later" is notable for several reasons. First, the cause of the zombie infection is mapped directly to the creation of an engineered virus called "Rage." Second, Boyle peppers the movie with squirm-inducing images calculated to prey on contemporary fears of infection and disease. And third, Boyle upends tradition by making the zombies fast and ferocious. Forget those shuffling corpses of movies past -- these zombies can move, baby!
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director Steven Soderbergh's thriller "Contagion" is the most recent film about viral fears to hit theaters, and almost surely the most scientifically accurate. The film depicts a virus outbreak and global pandemic, based in part on the 2003 SARS and the 2009 H1N1 crises. Soderbergh worked closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before and during filming to deliver what he called an "ultra-realistic" depiction of what a modern pandemic would look like. The DVD and Blu-ray versions of the film feature a generous assortment of extras on the science behind the movie.
The World Health Organisation on Friday declared the killer Ebola epidemic ravaging parts of west Africa an international health emergency and appealed for global aid to help afflicted countries.
The decision came after a rare, two-day closed-door session of the UN health body's emergency committee, which urged exit screening of all people flying out of affected countries, where nearly 1,000 people have died.
Watch "Ebola: Are We Next?" on Thursday, Sep. 18, starting at 9/8c on both Discovery Channel and Discovery Fit & Health.
The WHO stopped short of calling for global travel restrictions, urging airlines to take strict precautions but to continue flying to the area.
And it called on countries and airports around the globe to be prepared to "detect, investigate and manage" Ebola cases if they should arise.
The WHO move comes as US health authorities admitted on Thursday that Ebola's spread beyond west Africa was "inevitable", and after medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) warned that the deadly virus was now "out of control" with more than 60 outbreak hotspots.
WHO director-general Dr Margaret Chan appealed for greater help for the countries worst hit by the "largest, most severe and most complex outbreak in the nearly four-decade history of this disease".
"I am declaring the current outbreak a public health emergency of international concern," Chan said, stressing the "serious and unusual nature of the outbreak".
Defining the epidemic a public health emergency of international concern -- a label only used twice before, during the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009 and last May for the reemergence of polio in a number of countries -- "alerts the world to the need for high vigilance," she said.
However she noted that only a small part of the African continent had been affected.
A patient in Uganda tested negative for Ebola as fears were sparked of a spread to east Africa.
Meanwhile Benin -- to the east of the main affected countries -- awaited test results from two patients with Ebola-like symptoms.
Ebola has claimed at least 932 lives and infected more than 1,700 people since breaking out in Guinea earlier this year, according to the WHO.
States of emergency were in effect in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone -- something WHO said was a first necessary step to bringing the outbreak under control.
World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan, with assistant director-general for health security Keiji Fukuda, on August 8, 2014 in Geneva give a press conference following a two-day emergency meeting on west Africa's Ebola epidemic.ALAIN GROSCLAUDE/AFP/Getty Images
Support for health workers and ensuring they have proper protective equipment and training is essential, WHO health security chief Keiji Fukuda told reporters.
"This outbreak really underscores the importance of having strong health systems," he said.
Despite the new measures, Fukuda acknowledged "the likelihood is that it will get worse before it gets better," adding that WHO was bracing to deal with the outbreak "at some level for some number of months."
Soldiers in Liberia's Grand Cape Mount province -- one of the worst-affected areas -- set up road blocks to limit travel to the capital Monrovia, as bodies reportedly lay unburied in the city's streets.
In Sierra Leone, which has the most confirmed infections, 800 troops were sent to guard hospitals treating Ebola patients. Two towns in the east of the country were put under quarantine and entertainment venues across the country were ordered shut.
In Nigeria -- where the outbreak has so far been minor compared to the other affected countries, with two dead and five others infected -- public sector doctors suspended a nearly five-week strike to help battle the deadly virus and prevent it from taking hold in Africa's most populous country.
As African nations struggled with the scale of the epidemic, the scientists who discovered the virus in 1976 have called for an experimental drug being used on two infected Americans to also be made available for African victims.
The two infected Americans, who worked for Christian aid agencies in Liberia, have shown signs of improvement since being given ZMapp, which is made by US company Mapp Pharmaceuticals.
Spain also flew home a 75-year-old Roman Catholic priest, Miguel Pajares, the first European victim of the epidemic, on Thursday. Officials said his condition was stable.
"If you have health systems, you have awareness, you are ready for it, this is something that you can stop," he stressed.
First discovered in 1976 and named after a river in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ebola has killed around two-thirds of those infected, with two outbreaks registering fatality rates approaching 90 percent. The latest outbreak has a fatality rate of around 55-60 percent.