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8 Historically Terrifying Viruses

Getty Images/Nelson Almeida
Getty Images/Nelson Almeida

It seems like a new virus that's trying to kill us pops up somewhere in the world every other day. The World Health Organization recently announced that it is monitoring a new contagious, respiratory-infection-inducing coronavirus (suggested codename: Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus or MERS-Cov) that is responsible for dozens of illnesses and several deaths in the Middle East and Europe in the last few months.

While a handful of deaths does not a pandemic make, there is much to fear from tiny imperialistic pathogens—invisible to all but the most powerful microscopes—that invade our cells to replicate, messing them up like a coke-fueled rock band destroys a hotel room after a concert.

All the hand-sanitizer in the world can’t save us from some of history’s nastiest viruses and the horrifying diseases they cause in humans—and we know you’re just itching to know all about them. Here are eight of the deadliest viruses the world has ever seen.

1. Ebola

Its melodic moniker may roll off the tongue, but if you contract the virus (above), that's not the only thing that will roll off one of your body parts (a disturbing amount of blood coming out of your eyes, for instance). Four of the five known Ebola viral strains cause Ebola hemorrhagic fever (EHF), which has killed thousands of people in sub-Saharan African nations since its discovery in 1976.

The deadly virus is named after the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where it was first reported, and is classified as a CDC Biosafety Level 4, a.k.a. BSL-4, making it one of the most dangerous pathogens on the planet. It is thought to spread through close contact with bodily secretions. EHF has a 50 to 90 percent mortality rate, with a rapid onset of symptoms that start with a headache and sore throat and progress to major internal and external bleeding and multiple organ failure. There’s no known cure, and the most recent cases were reported at the end of 2012 in Uganda.

2. Marburg

Wikimedia Commons/Erin McCarthy

In 1967, a group of lab workers in Germany (Marburg and Frankfurt) and Serbia (then Yugoslavia) contracted a new type of hemorrhagic fever from some virus-carrying African green monkeys that had been imported for research and development of polio vaccines. The Marburg virus is also BSL-4, and Marburg hemorrhagic fever has a 23 to 90 percent fatality rate. Spread through close human-to-human contact, symptoms start with a headache, fever, and a rash on the trunk, and progress to multiple organ failure and massive internal bleeding. There is no cure, and the latest cases were reported out of Uganda at the end of 2012. An American tourist who had explored a Ugandan cave full of fruit bats known to be reservoirs of the virus contracted it and survived in 2008. (But not before bringing his sick self back to the U.S.)

3. Hantavirus

Wikimedia Commons/Erin McCarthy

There are many strains of hantavirus floating around (yep, it’s airborne) in the wake of rodents that carry the virus. Different strains, carried by different rodent species, are known to cause different types of illnesses in humans, most notably hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome (HFRS)—first discovered during the Korean War—and hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS), which reared its ugly head with a 1993 outbreak in the Southwestern United States. Severe HFRS causes acute kidney failure, while HPS gets you by filling your lungs with fluid (edema). HFRS has a mortality rate of 1 to 15 percent, while HPS is 38 percent. The U.S. saw its most recent outbreak of hantavirus—of the HPS variety—at Yosemite National Park in late 2012.

4. Lassa

Wikimedia Commons/Erin McCarthy

This BSL-4 virus gives us yet another reason to avoid rodents. Lassa is carried by a species of rat in West Africa called Mastomys. It’s airborne…at least when you’re hanging around the rat's fecal matter. Humans, however, can only spread it through direct contact with bodily secretions. Lassa fever, which has a 15 to 20 percent mortality rate, causes about 5000 deaths a year in West Africa, particularly in Sierra Leone and Liberia. It starts with a fever and some retrosternal pain (behind the chest) and can progress to facial swelling, encephalitis, mucosal bleeding and deafness. Fortunately, researchers and medical professionals have found some success in treating Lassa fever with an antiviral drug in the early stages of the disease.

5. Rabies

Wikimedia Commons/Erin McCarthy

Rabies has a long and storied history dating back to 2300 B.C., with records of Babylonians who went mad and died after being bitten by dogs. While this virus itself is a beast, the sickness it causes is now is wholly preventable if treated immediately with a series of vaccinations (sometimes delivered with a terrifyingly huge needle in the abdomen). We have vaccine inventor Louis Pasteur to thank for that.

Exposure to rabies these days, while rare in the U.S., still occurs as it did thousands of years ago—through bites from infected animals. If left untreated after exposure, the virus attacks the central nervous system and death usually results. The symptoms of an advanced infection include delirium, hallucinations and raging, violent behavior in some cases, which some have argued makes rabies eerily similar to zombification. If rabies ever became airborne, we might actually have to prepare for that zombie apocalypse after all.

6. Smallpox

Wikimedia Commons/Erin McCarthy

The virus that causes smallpox wiped out hundreds of millions of people worldwide over thousands of years. We can’t even blame it on animals either, as the virus is only carried by and contagious for humans. There are several different types of smallpox disease that result from an infection ranging from mild to fatal, but it is generally marked by a fever, rash, and blistering, oozing pustules that develop on the skin. Fortunately, smallpox was declared eradicated in 1979, as the result of successful worldwide implementation of the vaccine.

7. Dengue

Wikimedia Commons/Erin McCarthy

The leading cause of death in the tropics and subtropics is the infection brought on by the dengue virus, which causes a high fever, severe headache, and, in the worst cases, hemorrhaging. The good news is that it's treatable and not contagious. The bad news is there's no vaccine, and you can get it easily from the bite of an infected mosquito—which puts at least a third of the world's human population at risk. The CDC estimates that there are over 100 million cases of dengue fever each year. It's a great marketing tool for bug spray.

8. Influenza

Wikimedia Commons/Erin McCarthy

No virus can claim credit for more worldwide pandemics and scares than influenza. The outbreak of the Spanish flu in 1918 is generally considered to be one of the worst pandemics in human history, infecting 20 to 40 percent of the world's population and killing 50 million in the span of just two years. (A reconstruction of that virus is above.) The swine flu was its most recent newsmaker, when a 2009 pandemic may have seen as many as 89 million people infected worldwide.

Effective influenza vaccines exist, and most people easily survive infections. But the highly infectious respiratory illness is cunning—the virus is constantly mutating and creating new strains. Thousands of strains exist at any given time, many of them harmless, and vaccines available in the U.S. cover only about 40 percent of the strains at large each year.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Steve Martin
NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images
NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images

Is there anything Steve Martin can't do? In addition to being one of the world's most beloved comedians and actors, he's also a writer, a musician, a magician, and an art enthusiast. And he's about to put a number of these talents on display with Steve Martin and Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life, a new comedy special that just arrived on Netflix. To commemorate the occasion, here are 10 things you might not have known about Steve Martin.

1. HE WAS A CHEERLEADER.

As a yellleader (as he refers to it in a yearbook signature) at his high school in Garden Grove, California, Martin tried to make up his own cheers, but “Die, you gravy-sucking pigs,” he later told Newsweek, did not go over so well.

2. HIS FIRST JOB WAS AT DISNEYLAND.

Martin’s first-ever job was at Disneyland, which was located just two miles away from his house. He started out selling guidebooks, keeping $.02 for every book he sold. He graduated to the Magic Shop on Main Street, where he got his first taste of the gags that would later make his career. He also learned the rope tricks you see in ¡Three Amigos! from a rope wrangler over in Frontierland.

3. HE OWES HIS WRITING JOB WITH THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS TO AN EX-GIRLFRIEND.

Thanks to a girlfriend who got a job dancing on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Martin landed a gig writing for the show. He had absolutely no experience as a writer at the time. He shared an office with Bob Einstein—better known to some as Super Dave Osborne or Marty Funkhauser—and won an Emmy for writing in 1969.

4. HE WAS A CONTESTANT ON THE DATING GAME.

While he was writing for the Smothers Brothers, but before he was famous in his own right, Martin was on an episode of The Dating Game. (Spoiler alert: He wins. But did you have any doubt?)

5. MANY PEOPLE THOUGHT HE WAS A SERIES REGULAR ON SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

Martin hosted and did guest spots on Saturday Night Live so often in the 1970s and '80s that many people thought he was a series regular. He wasn't. 

6. HIS FATHER WROTE A REVIEW OF HIS FIRST SNL APPEARANCE.

After his first appearance on SNL, Martin’s father, the president of the Newport Beach Association of Realtors, wrote a review of his son’s performance in the company newsletter. “His performance did nothing to further his career,” the elder Martin wrote. He also once told a newspaper, “I think Saturday Night Live is the most horrible thing on television.”

7. HE POPULARIZED THE AIR QUOTE.

If you find yourself making air quotes with your fingers more than you’d really like, you have Martin to thank. He popularized the gesture during his guest spots on SNL and stand-up performances.

8. HE QUIT STAND-UP COMEDY IN THE EARLY 1980S.

Martin gave up stand-up comedy in 1981. “I still had a few obligations left but I knew that I could not continue,” he told NPR in 2009. “But I guess I could have continued if I had nothing to go to, but I did have something to go to, which was movies. And you know, the act had become so known that in order to go back, I would have had to create an entirely new show, and I wasn't up to it, especially when the opportunity for movies and writing movies came around.”

9. HE'S A MAJOR ART COLLECTOR.

As an avid art collector, Martin owns works by Pablo Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney, and Edward Hopper. He sold a Hopper for $26.9 million in 2006. Unfortunately, being rich and famous doesn’t mean Martin is immune to scams: In 2004, he spent about $850,000 on a piece believed to be by German-Dutch modernist painter Heinrich Campendonk. When Martin tried to sell the piece, “Landschaft mit Pferden” (or "Landscape With Horses") 15 months later, he was informed that it was a forgery. Though the painting still sold, it was at a huge loss.

10. HE'S AN ACCOMPLISHED BLUEGRASS PERFORMER.

Many people already know this, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that he’s an extremely accomplished bluegrass performer. With the help of high school friend John McEuen, who later became a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Martin taught himself to play the banjo when he was 17. He's been picking away ever since. If you see him on stage these days, he’s likely strumming a banjo with his band, the Steep Canyon Rangers. As seen above, they make delightful videos.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Wine
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by Tilar J. Mazzeo

Between the vine and the liquor store, plenty of secrets are submerged in your favorite bottle of vino. Here, the author of Back Lane Wineries of Sonoma spills some of the best.

1. DIGITAL EYES ARE EVERYWHERE IN VINEYARDS.

Certain premium estates in Bordeaux and Napa are beginning to look a little more like an army base—or an Amazon.com warehouse. They’re using drones, optical scanners, and heat-sensing satellites to keep a digital eye on things. Some airborne drones collect data that helps winemakers decide on the optimal time to harvest and evaluate where they can use less fertilizer. Others rove through the vineyard rows, where they may soon be able to take over pruning. Of course, these are major investments. At $68,000 a pop, the Scancopter 450 is about twice as costly as a 1941 Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon!

2. THERE ARE ALSO LOTS OF COW SKULLS.

They’re not everywhere, but biodynamic farming techniques are on the rise among vintners who don’t want to rely on chemicals, and this is one trick they’ve been known to use to combat plant diseases and improve soil PH. It’s called Preparation No. 505, and it involves taking a cow’s skull (or a sheep’s or a goat’s), stuffing it with finely ground oak chips, and burying it in a wet spot for a season or two before adding it to the vineyard compost.

3. FEROCIOUS FOLIAGE IS A VINTNER’S FRIEND.

The mustard flowers blooming between vineyard rows aren’t just for romance. Glucosinolates in plants like radishes and mustard give them their spicy bite, and through the wonders of organic chemistry, those glucosinolates also double as powerful pesticides. Winemakers use them to combat nematodes—tiny worms that can destroy grape crops.

4. WHAT A CANARY IS TO A COAL MINE, ROSES ARE TO A VINEYARD.

Vintners plant roses among their vines because they get sick before anything else in the field. If there’s mildew in the air, it will infect the roses first and give a winemaker a heads-up that it’s time to spray.

5. VINTNERS EXPLOIT THE FOOD CHAIN.

A trio of wines
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Small birds like blackbirds and starlings can clear out 20 percent of a crop in no time. But you know what eats little birds? Big birds. Falconry programs are on the rise in vineyards from California to New Zealand. Researchers have found that raptors eat a bird or two a day (along with a proportion of field mice and other critters) and cost only about as much to maintain as your average house cat.

6. THE BIG PROBLEMS IN TASTING ROOMS ARE VERY SMALL.

Winemakers are constantly seeking ways to manage the swarms of Drosophila melanogaster that routinely gather around the dump buckets in their swanky showrooms. You know these pests as fruit flies, and some vintners in California are exploring ways to use carnivorous plants to tackle the problem without pesticides. Butterworts, sundews, and pitcher plants all have sweet-sounding names, but the bugeating predators make for terrific fruit fly assassins, and you’ll see them decorating tasting rooms across wine country.

7. WINE NEEDS CLEANING.

Winemaking produces hard-to-remove sediments. Filters can catch most of the debris, but winemakers must add “fining agents” to remove any suspended solids that sneak by. Until it was banned in the 1990s, many European vintners used powdered ox blood to clean their wines. Today, they use diatomaceous earth (the fossilized remains of hard-shelled algae), Isinglass (a collagen made from fish swim bladders), and sometimes bentonite (volcanic clay). Irish moss and egg whites are also fine wine cleaners.

8. ATOMS HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS.

About 5 percent of the premium wine sold for cellaring doesn’t contain what the label promises. So how do top-shelf buyers avoid plunking down serious cash on a bottle of something bunk? Most elite wine brokerages, auction houses, and collectors use atomic dating to detect fraud. By measuring trace radioactive carbon in the wine, most bottles can be dated to within a year or two of the vintage.

9. FINE WINES GET MRIs.

Even with atomic dating, there are certain perils involved in buying a $20,000 bottle of wine. Leaving a case in the hot trunk of your car is enough to ruin it, so imagine what can happen over a couple of decades if a wine isn’t kept in the proper conditions. Back in 2002, a chemistry professor at University of California at Davis patented a technique that uses MRI technology to diagnose the condition of vintage wines. Not planning any $20,000 wine purchases? This is still good news for the consumer. This technique may soon be used at airport security, meaning you’ll be able to carry on your booze.

10. THERE’S A TRICK TO AGING YOUR WINE.

If you end up with a bottle of plonk, Chinese scientists have developed a handy solution. Zapping a young wine with electricity makes it taste like something you’ve cellar aged. Scientists aren’t quite sure how it happens yet, but it seems that running your wine for precisely three minutes through an electric field changes the esters, proteins, and aldehydes and can “age” a wine instantly.

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