Next big one may dwarf Ebola outbreak

By MOLLY WRIGHT/Montana State News

Ebola came. It left. So what?

According to David Quammen, it – or something like it – could happen again, and on a much larger scale.

Speaking to a full crowd in the Montana State University Strand Union Building Ballroom recently, the renowned Bozeman-based science writer spoke not only about the Ebola epidemic that struck West Africa, but the deadly potential of any emerging disease.

“Humans are an outbreak population,” said Quammen. With 7 billion people on our planet and counting, we have all the potential to see a viral infection that would kill off much of the population.

The Ebola virus, with 24,000 reported cases and 10,000 deaths, is only one in a long string of deadly diseases. It is known as a zoonotic disease, Quammen said, or an animal infection transmissible to humans. When it crosses from animals to humans, it is known as “spillover.”

However, Quammen assured the crowd that there is no need to panic.

“We humans have heterogeneity of behavior,” said Quammen. “We can think for ourselves and make decisions that interrupt the train of transmission.” We know how to properly react when such a disease strikes to prevent a “crash” in our population, he said.

Quammen has had his fair share of experience in talking about the epidemic.

“I was a ‘talking head’ for the major news shows,” said Quammen about the Ebola scare. “I think we got so caught up in worrying about where it might go that we forgot to talk about where it came from.”

The disease originated in a small village of 30 houses in Guinea, where a two-year-old boy became ill and died soon after. This is not an uncommon occurrence in such a village, Quammen said, but when his entire family started dying, suspicions were aroused. He said he believes the source of the disease is the Angolan free-tailed bat, a delicacy for many children of the village.

“This shows the connectedness between humans and other species,” said Quammen. It reveals a “Darwinian truth:” humans are, in fact, animals.

Quammen has lived in Bozeman for over 30 years. Introduced by President Waded Cruzado as a “good friend of mine and of MSU’s,” Quammen’s history with the university began as a freelance reporter based out of Ennis. He frequently used the library for his research. Quammen moved into science-based nonfiction when he realized he “had to make a living,” eliciting laughs from the audience.

His latest book about deadly diseases, entitled “Spillover,” is a finalist for seven national awards. He has also written “The Chimp and the River” and “Ebola,” as well as four fiction books and four books of essays.

“How lucky we are to have someone of David’s stature in our own backyard,” said Cruzado. “The Bozeman community is truly lucky to have someone like him.”

MSU students who attended the event seemed to echo Cruzado’s sentiments.

“I think it’s important that he came here for how relevant he is,” said Andy Meyer, a junior at MSU studying English-Writing. “It’s cool that a member of our community has had such an impact on a global scale.”

– Edited by Jason Berg

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