Health specialists prepare for work in an isolation ward for patients at the Doctors Without Borders facility in Guékedou, southern Guinea, in March.
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.
It sounds like the perfect script for a horror movie: A virus with no vaccine and no cure kills hundreds of people; despite containment efforts, it keeps spreading.
But it’s actually all too real in West Africa, where doctors have said Ebola is now “out of control.”
While scientists dig for clues that could help develop medicine or better vaccine, the only prevention technique remains isolation. And despite health care workers who wear hazmat-like suits, use bleach as soap, and burn bedding instead of washing and re-using, the World Health Organization announced today that the virus has killed at least 467 people and spread throughout Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, making this the most deadly and farthest-reaching outbreak of the disease since it first appeared in 1976.
While containment is possible in theory, breaks in protocol compromise the effort -- and are common in countries where both the disease and foreign medical workers are feared. In one Sierra Leone village, residents burned down the treatment center, convinced that the patients were being given medicine that caused the disease. And some patients escape hospitals to hide.
“Rumors are rife that if you eat three large onions, for example, you won’t get Ebola -- but if you go to the hospital, you will get it,” said Dan Epstein, a WHO spokesman in Switzerland.
One of the most revered local customs could account for much of the disease's spread, Ebola experts say: Local tradition calls for washing a corpse before it is buried, putting everyone who participates in the ritual in touch with bodily fluids that contain the virus.
“The cultural practices are so deeply imbedded that local people have told health care workers that if they did not adhere to the ablutions (ritual washing of the corpse), they would be shunned by everyone in their family and village,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Government task forces have run radio and television ads to try to counter the myths, but mistrust of the government can render them ineffective, said Epstein.
How Can Ebola Be Stopped?: Page 2
Health specialists prepare for work in an isolation ward for patients at the Doctors Without Borders facility in Guékedou, southern Guinea, in March.AFP/Getty Images
In a perfect world, the virus could be contained through isolation and tracking, he said.
“You would have all the people who were infected immediately go to a health clinic and be put in an isolation ward, cared for by nurses and doctors in full personal protective equipment,” Epstein said. “Also in a perfect world, you’d be able to go into the villages where there have been outbreaks without opposition and be able to tell people that their burial practices are dangerous to their community.”
You’d also be able to trace every person that every infected person had recent contact with and monitor them for symptoms, important for a disease that can have a 21-day incubation period, he said -- much as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did last spring with a MERS case in Indiana. That's one reason experts don't think the disease will impact countries with certain health care protocols already in place, like the U.S.
The reality in West Africa, however, is nowhere near that best-case scenario. In fact, the area may be especially conducive to the disease's spread -- perhaps even more so than in Central Africa, where the disease had been found previously. West Africa's road system and higher population density make travel easier -- and containment harder, said Robert Garry, a microbiology professor at Tulane University School of Medicine who recently returned from West Africa, where he has been working on Lassa fever efforts for years. Garry believes that because not every case has been reported or tracked, we may be seeing just the tip of the iceberg.
“I don't think it's going to be over anytime soon. Each one of those infected [and not reported] people could infect 10 more -- or hundreds,” he said.
International health organizations, including the WHO and Doctors Without Borders, have said they have reached their limits, and that more government intervention -- “drastic action” -- is needed. A meeting of health ministers from 11 countries to explore ways to prevent the virus from spreading will be held Wednesday and Thursday.
"We need to look for nontraditional ways to get help," Garry said.