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.
A doctor who just returned from treating Ebola patients in West Africa predicts the current Ebola outbreak will go on for more than a year, and will continue to spread unless a vaccine or other drugs that prevent or treat the disease are developed.
Dr. Daniel Lucey, an expert on viral outbreaks and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Medical Center, recently spent three weeks in Sierra Leone, one of the countries affected by the Ebola outbreak. While there, Lucey evaluated and treated Ebola patients, and trained other doctors and nurses on how to use protective equipment.
Watch "Ebola: Are We Next?" on Thursday, Sep. 18, starting at 9/8c on both Discovery Channel and Discovery Fit & Health.
The current Ebola outbreak, which is mainly in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, has so far killed at least 1,552 of the more than 3,000 people infected, making it the largest and deadliest Ebola outbreak in history. It is also the first outbreak to spread from rural areas to cities. Strategies that have worked in the past to stop Ebola outbreaks in rural areas may not, by themselves, be enough to halt this outbreak, Lucey said.
"I don't believe that our traditional methods of being able to control and stop outbreaks in rural areas … is going to be effective in most of the cities," Lucey said yesterday (Sept. 3) in a discussion held at Georgetown University Law Center that was streamed online. While the World Health Organization has released a plan to stop Ebola transmission within six to nine months, "I think that this outbreak is going to go on even longer than a year," Lucey said. [5 Things You Should Know About Ebola]
In addition, without vaccines or drugs for Ebola, "I'm not confident we will be able to stop it," Lucey said. There are a few studies of Ebola treatments and prevention methods under way, but more research is needed to show whether they are safe and effective against the disease.
One strategy that could help with the current outbreak is to implement public health "command centers" whose job it is to make sure that tools and equipment sent to the affected regions are properly distributed to places that need them, Lucey said.
When Lucey was in Sierra Leone, protective equipment for health care workers made its way to the capital city, but not to the hospital where he was working, he said. "We did not have gloves that I felt safe with," Lucey said, noting that the gloves would tear easily. "We didn't have face shields. We had goggles that had been washed so many times you couldn't see through them," Lucey said.
Another important factor in stemming the outbreak will be community engagement and education to help people in the region understand the behaviors that spread the disease, said Dr. Marty Cetron, director of Global Migration and Quarantine at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is also important to understand the culture of an area so that control strategies are culturally acceptable, Cetron said.
This large Ebola outbreak could have been prevented with an effective public health response at the beginning, said Lawrence Gostin, director of the O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University. But the weak health systems of the affected countries left them unprepared to respond to the outbreak, Gostin said.
The international community should have been more generous in supporting poorer countries so they could develop the response capacities needed to contain the outbreak, Gostin and colleagues wrote in a recent briefing for the O'Neill Institute.
To help with the current outbreak, and prevent future ones, Gostin called for the establishment of an international "health systems fund," which would be supported by high-resource countries. The money would be used to strengthen the health systems in those countries, he said.
"We want to avoid leaving these countries in the same kind of fragile health condition" that they are in now, and that is being worsened, Gostin said.