Ebola Big Picture


Western Red Colobus Monkey, Cote d’Ivoire

Here we go again, spending millions and millions of dollars on symptoms of a viral epidemic without bothering to look at the cause.

Let’s say we actually manage to raise enough money so that every victim of Ebola gets a quarantined bed, a chance at an antidote or at least compassionate palliative care – where does that lead? The next obvious step in the medical industrial complex is to create another vaccination that can be sold around the world and mandated so that we have global herd immunity from this deadly virus.

If this seems like the best case scenario to you, then you are firmly stuck in a world view that chases symptoms without considering cause. And your money, your effort and your worry will always be chasing the next batch of symptoms because the cause is never going to be addressed.


What is the biological purpose of a virus? The medical industrial complex, and the media, would have us believe that viruses are simply a form of abstract evil unleashed in the world, and that our only response is to fight their aberrant evil.

This overlooks the fact that viruses have a purpose. They are some of the oldest life forms and they are sophisticated and wise with experience of the world. All life forms contract viruses, parasites, helminths and various types of pathogens from time to time. In fact it is so necessary for us to encounter these pathogens, that if we don’t, our immune systems fail to develop properly which results in auto-immune system diseases (immature immune system attacks itself) or chronically weak immune systems, which of course leads to premature death.

As viruses are living like us (though often dormant), their plan is to reproduce and stay alive. This doesn’t work very well when their host dies. Over a very, very long timeframe, if a virus doesn’t completely kill off its host species first, it will eventually adapt and change (in response to the host’s immune system adapting and changing) so that the host can stay alive and the virus can remain in place (though again often dormant), but kept in check by antibodies that have been developed by the host.

But let me get back on track with my statement that viruses have a purpose, because it’s hard to see through the media’s frenzied terror of Ebola that it could serve a purpose.


The Ebola we are dealing with right now has adapted to live in some African fruit bats and Western Colobus monkeys without killing them. This immunity would have taken thousands of years to establish. In both cases, the virus offers each species a protection against excess predation.

Specifically, Ebola offers a unique benefit to the Western Colobus monkeys – as a shield against chimpanzee attacks. Chimpanzees only go after colobus monkeys to display dominance for the purpose of attracting a mate or upending hierarchies, not as a staple source of food. These displays seem to occur rarely enough that the two species can both survive alongside each other. However when the habitat of the chimpanzees and the colobus monkeys is shrunk or stressed, the chimpanzees become increasingly aggressive against the monkeys; at that point, the Ebola virus comes out to save the day (for the colobus monkeys, anyway).

In a stressed habitat, when chimpanzees over-prey on colobus monkeys, the virus makes itself active and infects the chimpanzees. This is a very elegant way for a small monkey to attack a larger primate. While the Ebola virus has little effect on the colobus monkey, it is absolutely deadly in the chimpanzees.

Upon eating infected monkey meat, a chimpanzee will recognize its illness (often before exhibiting symptoms) and isolate itself from its tribe. Usually the chimpanzee goes off into the forest by itself and curls up to die. These dead chimpanzees can be found with internal organs reduced to mush and blood. In fact this is exactly what happened in 1994 when researchers discovered that 25% of the wild chimpanzee population they had been studying in Taï National Park, Cote d’Ivoire, suddenly died or disappeared.

At that time, a human researcher also contracted Ebola from a dead chimpanzee she was autopsying. Incredibly, she was given supportive care and managed to survive. It is unknown whether she contracted a very light variant or whether she had an incredible immune system, but it is very rare to survive a viral attack like Ebola when it first jumps species. Usually neither the virus nor the immune system has the time to evolve antibodies at first jump, so she was extremely fortunate.

Eventually, with enough time, a vibrant population of wild chimpanzees would also adapt and learn to live with Ebola. But while their habitats remain intact and they only rarely cross paths with the colobus monkeys, this adaptation will not be forced. In fact there are too few chimpanzees left in the wild for this adaptation to ever be successful at this point. Rather, if chimpanzees and colobus monkeys are forced into close enough quarters with enough confrontations, the few bands of chimpanzees left will simply all succumb to Ebola.



This happens with all viruses. The Black Plague was originally so destructive that it would consume its host in a matter of days; there are reports of victims going to bed healthy and never waking up because the plague acted on them so quickly (those were the lucky ones). Incidentally although the Black Plague started as a bubonic plague spread by marmots in China, it mutated into a respiratory-style Ebola-like virus, which is how it was able to spread so quickly throughout Europe.

However eventually, after some 200 million human deaths globally and over centuries of infection and adaptation, the virus that started the Black Plague evolved with its human hosts into an illness that was survivable. In fact everyone on Earth today is here because our ancestors were able to evolve their immune systems enough to create and pass on the antibodies to tolerate and live in harmony with that particular viral strain from the 1300s. Nice work, ancestors. (Actually there is a longer story here about natural selection for a gene that was immune to viral plagues, but it plays out to the same basic tune).

While one particular antibody is really only associated with one particular strain of virus, an inherited antibody can at least inform the immune system on creating and evolving new antibodies for new viruses. This is an intelligent system that needs to be challenged to evolve in every generation. In the absence of inherited antibodies, the immune system has less information to draw on. Consider that for a minute, because our whole world view of artificial immunizations does not account for what we are losing by not passing on our collective inherited antibodies.

(As a side note, artificial immunizations or vaccines stimulate the humoral immune system – the part that creates antibodies. While this is a totally brilliant biohack, that’s all it is – an artificial hack which confers temporary and transient resistance. To create a lasting and legacy immunity, both sides of the immune system need to be stimulated – the humoral as well as the cell-mediated response. Cell-mediated immunity is the system of white blood cells that attack the pathogens and also create the feelings of sickness inside you, and this also has to evolve with every pathogen. At this point in time, a total immunity can only be generated by responding to an actual disease. This is the kind of immune system intel you want to pass on to your children, provided you can survive the diseases that teach it).


So what is the point of a virus? A virus wants to replicate. It wants to keep its host alive and will confer benefits to the host for the opportunity (like killing predatory chimpanzees).

What is the biological purpose of Ebola? Ebola protects African fruit bats from habitat encroachment and over-predation. Ebola protects Western Colobus monkeys from over-predation by chimpanzees when their habitats become unstable. In turn, Ebola spreads from bats and chimpanzees to humans when humans encroach on their habitat. In short, the way to end Ebola is not by coming up with a vaccine. The way to end Ebola is to stop encroaching on chimpanzee habitat.


Maybe we should stop butchering chimpanzees

If you don’t think you have anything to do with this, then maybe you have never used a prescription medication in your life – tested on kidnapped chimpanzees and other primates. We may not be the ones specifically encroaching on chimpanzee habitat or stressing their populations, but everything we do in the West to ensure our comfort and continuity seems to indirectly lead there.

Ebola is not unique in this way. Responding to habitat encroachment is simply what viruses do, and there are millions of them in the world laying dormant waiting to act. The logical solution is to restore wild habitats all around the world.

However the more economically exciting solution is to keep extracting resources from habitats while simultaneously developing vaccinations for countless viruses on the horizon, and then selling them around the world and enforcing herd immunity. So of course that is what we will do, to great profit.

The big picture is that a vaccine against Ebola is really just a way of buying more time to continue with habitat destruction and resource extraction. If you want to help or raise money, the best thing you can do is direct it towards saving and restoring habitat. Any habitat will do, as viruses aren’t choosy. However the damp, wet jungle habitats seem to release the deadliest viral pathogens when disturbed.

If you are too cynical to believe that saving or restoring habitat is in the cards anymore, then you can at least prepare yourself for a future with higher incidence of viral pandemics. In the case of a viral pandemic, the last place you will want to venture is a hospital or clinic – which will always be the ground zero for viruses and their adaptations, and are also fraught with bacterial super bugs from antibiotic resistance. So in a world where you can’t get your hands on any medical drugs or care, potentially, you will need to know what foods and plants can confer some antiviral assistance to your immune system.


  1. Vitamin A deficiency is linked to higher death rates from all diseases. This is precisely why children in the third world die of measles but rarely do in the first world. Vitamin A is in liver and organ meats, butter, egg yolks, cod liver oil and a slightly less bio-available form in orange and yellow vegetables and fruits. IF YOU SUDDENLY COME DOWN WITH EBOLA OR A SIMILAR DEADLY VIRUS, take at least 200,000 IU for 2 – 4 days, spaced out 10,000 IU every hour. I am basing this recommendation on World Health Organization treatment for malnourished measles sufferers; however they only did 2 days of doses at 200,000 IU in their tests. Later trials showed even more reliable results with 400,000 IU over 2 days. Synthetic vitamin A gets pretty toxic quickly, but it will do the trick in a pinch. Even better news, Vitamin A is super cheap! (Remember not to take synthetic vitamin A when pregnant – basically only take this if your alternative is dying from Ebola). Also:
  2. Super doses of Vitamin C or ascorbic acid are incredibly active against viruses. Low doses (1000mg/day) are routinely tested and shown to do nothing. High doses are similarly tested and proven useless, when administered all at once (because the excess is “peed out”). We can only metabolize about 750mg/hour. In the case of any viral illness, take 1000mg/hour for the duration. If you don’t have supplements (hello Apocolypse) and you live in the north like me – you can substitute pine needle tips, cedar tips, sumach and small herbs like sheep sorrel – though you will need a lot.
  3. Antiviral foods like coconut oil, ginger, cayenne, honey and royal jelly – and herbs like Chinese skullcap, licorice, lomatium, cordyceps, isatis, astragalus, boneset, elder, houttuynia. There are lots of others, find out what is in your specific area.
  4. I don’t really want to get into the whole vaccine debate, not at all. But certain childhood infections like measles and mumps seem to confer benefits like lower chance of ovarian cancer and lymphatic cancers, among other things. There may be a price to pay for our vaccine hack, and the price might be weakened, immature immune systems and an eroded immunization legacy to pass on to our children. It could be that after a few generations of vaccines, all our collective immune system work to evolve beyond the Black Plague is for nothing. On a more practical note:
  5. When you and your children get sick, allow yourselves to get sick. Don’t mask the symptoms as far as you are able. Those bad feelings (fever, stuffy nose, cough, congestion, runny eyes) are the result of your cell-mediated immune system firing up white blood cells to attack the invading pathogen. If you suppress the symptoms, you suppress the cell-mediated response and stifle the precious experiential learning that your immune system requires. You can boost the immune system with nutrients and herbs, but don’t suppress the symptoms. (Of course if your fever runs dangerously high, do something about it. You obviously need to live through these experiences for them to be any good to you.)
  6. Try to find some wild habitat near you and examine it. Is it really very wild? Are there very many insects, birds and animals? Are there any large predators, which are the keystone species? Cultivate a reverence for these wild spaces and you might be a little closer to understanding the big picture.

For everyone who doesn’t take the time to respect their wild habitats, there will be an #AndNowIHaveEbola hashtag at the ready. You can count on it.


Again, I only post links at the end of my write-ups because of research from the book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, which I reviewed here.

Details on the Ebola Outbreak Among Chimpanzees in Cote D’Ivoire 1994, Journal of Infectious Diseases

Detail about the surviving ethologist who contracted Ebola in 1994, Journal of Infectious Diseases

My post on a Quick and Dirty Antiviral, with links to further reading

Treating third world children with measles with inexpensive, high dose Vitamin A – from the Committee on Infectious Disease at the American Academy of Pediatrics

Why You Are Still Alive – the Immune System Explained, a great info cartoon on youtube

New research on the Plague/Black Death as an Ebola style virus, Biology of Plague: Evidence from Historical Populations by Susan Scott and Christopher Duncan

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10 thoughts on “Ebola Big Picture

  1. deanwestphoto says:

    Thanks S! I very much enjoyed reading this.

    dean west photographer +1 917 767 4491 195 Plymouth St, Brooklyn, New York


    • Thanks Denny! There is a definite passion for wild places in your photographs; in fact whenever I picture the ideal forest I’m actually dreaming of your incredible shots from deep inside Olympic National Park.

  2. Penny says:

    S..as usual, great work!! Too bad there is too much poverty and desperation in the world for your solution to work. Too bad we are driven by the profit motive and so we will continue to extract resources and encroach on wild habitats. Too bad too bad.
    I’m going herb hunting today.

    • I wasn’t actually proposing a solution, I was just saying that if you’re the type of person who feels they have to help or give money, then direct it towards habitat preservation.

      The “solution” will come on its own but I don’t think we will get to be a part of creating it, and we most likely won’t enjoy it very much!

      But in the meantime we should all enjoy the forest and thrill at the hunt for herbs!

  3. Mark says:

    Great Post! Very provocative and interesting to think of the big picture! Two things that come to mind:
    First, it’s not necessarily the case that a virus will evolve into a harmless symbiote with its host–Measles and Smallpox killed or permanently disfigured/injured millions of people for at least 1100 years before the advent of vaccines with no sign of slowing down. I think its far from a foregone conclusion that every virus will eventually find a way to not kill its host. Rather, either virus or host must adapt or die–and adaptation is often the exception, not the rule. Evolution has no forethought after all.
    Second, cell-mediated immunity in combination with humoral immunity is definitely far more of a robust response, it is usually enough to prevent someone form getting sick for life, and certainly lessens the severity of an illness regardless…much, i imagine, like the inherited antibodies of our ancestors.
    Thanks again, great article!

    • Thanks for your enthusiastic comments. “Harmless” might be going too far when talking about these viruses, and I didn’t mean to make it seem like I was not taking them seriously.

      So, measles – probably first jumped in Mesopotamia (original habitat encroachment) but didn’t start being widely reported until the 11th century, likely as a result of populations moving from one area to another (conquest i.e. Norman invasion etc, also: habitat destruction). I don’t know how deadly measles used to be, but since I had them I feel like I can say they are currently survivable with an adequate immune system and high levels of vitamin A. The reason people still die of measles is due to malnutrition or previously compromised immune systems, not because it is a deadly virus. It has a purpose too, you know!

      Smallpox is such an interesting case, and we can look at it as if Europeans were the Western Red Colobus monkey. At first, many monkeys encountering ebola would have died, just like how at first most Europeans died of smallpox. But after centuries of plagues and death, finally smallpox became the European’s viral weapon when invading the New World – also known as habitat encroachment.

      Interestingly, smallpox breaches the body through a gene on the surface of cells called CCR5-delta 32. In a population without smallpox, 1 in every 20,000 humans has a mutation of this gene, and the mutation blocks smallpox entry. Over the centuries (1300s+), while the disease did become survivable (though certainly not harmless or painless) for some due to an evolution on both parts, the greater effect was to increase the density of the mutation from 1 in 20,000 to better than today’s 1 in 10. Just think about all the people who had to die in order for those numbers to make sense! I can’t find a figure for what the European rate of CCR5-delta 32 mutation would have been at the time of conquest of the Americas (it would likely be conjecture anyway), but I’ve got to assume it was way higher. My guess is more like 4 out of 5 would have had the protective mutation. When the Europeans and their fancy smallpox mutations came to the New World, we met a population that still only had the general 1 in 20,000 level of mutation. And so they almost all died. Well, at least 19,999 of every 20,000 anyway – give or take a few hundred. Since then there has been little selection pressure on that gene, which means we are reversing the work (back up to 1 in 10) that went into building our resistance in the Middle Ages. All that death for naught!

      If you look at this argument too closely it can seem like I am saying we shouldn’t bother to vaccinate and that only those humans with the CCR5-delta 32 mutation should live. (Incidentally, those with the mutation are also immune to HIV and probably ebola). But I’m really not saying that because I like being able to play with rusty nails and not get tetanus etc. Hey, I love the cushiness of modern life.

      But I think what I am getting at is that we have been squandering both our genetic and inherited resistance to plague diseases because they’ve been out of sight and out of mind. I’m definitely not saying anything has got to change or that anything should change, because quite simply it won’t. But in the big, big picture – which isn’t the place where we live our daily lives – we are absolutely headed for a viral pandemic, which will probably coincide nicely with our total antibacterial resistance, and the only ones who might survive it will either have that CCR5-delta 32 mutation (or a similarly useful mutation) or they will have very wise and creative immune systems, which are only designed by first-hand and inherited experience.

    • Oh yeah and I think I was too flippant with my assertion that a virus “will” adapt, so I hedged my comment by adding aeons to it. Now it is the longest, most confusing run-on sentence ever! But more accurate, so thanks for noticing.

      “Over a very, very long timeframe, if a virus doesn’t completely kill off its host species first, it will eventually adapt and change (in response to the host’s immune system adapting and changing) so that the host can stay alive and the virus can remain in place (though again often dormant), but kept in check by antibodies that have been developed by the host.”

      OMG who can even get through that sentence structure?

  4. jb4615 says:

    Really great assimilation of the information . Plus, I loved the picture of the monkey eating the folded leaf. Watch “Aluna”/ the Kogi indian’s from Columbia take on ruining habitat.

  5. Kyra bp says:

    My emotions in reading all of the above could be summed up by the film “The Fountain”. (overwhelmed by emotion, but then acceptant of our fate, then released into transcendental light, all accompanied by many tears)

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