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6 Things You Might Not Know About Ebola

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More than 3300 people have died of an Ebola outbreak in Africa, and now, the virus has made the jump to United States: In Dallas, Texas, 100 people who came in contact with a Liberian national who has the disease have been quarantined. Here are some things you might not have known about the haemorrhagic fever.

1. It’s not even alive.

The criteria to be considered a living organism includes being able to eat and to reproduce on your own. Ebola can reproduce aggressively inside an infected host, but it needs to insert itself into the host cells to do it—no host cell, no more new viruses. (Just don’t call it a prion: bits of protein that influence other proteins to adopt their misshapen forms, causing diseases. Ebola has genetic material held inside a protective protein coat, while prions don’t.) Ebola doesn’t metabolize anything on its own, either, making it not dead but not really alive. Ebola is something like a zombie—a bundle of genetic programming with replication skills and bad intentions.

2. This is not the first U.S. outbreak.

There’s a whole family tree of Ebola. There are 5 species that have been identified, each named after the place they sprung up: Zaire, Bundibugyo, Sudan, Reston and Taï Forest. The current outbreak is the Zaire strain—which is creepy because the crisis is not in Zaire. The Reston subtype is named after a town in Virginia, where an outbreak occurred in 1989, followed by incidents in Texas and Pennsylvania. These all had one thing in common: infected monkeys exported by a single facility in the Philippines. These outbreaks are different than the current patient in Dallas for one big reason: No humans suffered illness in any of the previous cases.

3. It has a military mindset for invasion.

Researchers are finding out just how clever Ebola is as they reveal some of the virus' murderous Modus Operandi. One key to its lethal success is the stealth way it shuts down immune system defenses, the same way an air force will disable air defenses before sending in the bombers. Ebola obstructs parts of an immune system that are activated by molecules called interferons. These interferons have a vital role in fighting Ebola, usually with scorched earth tactics. “It makes a variety of responses to viral infection possible, including the self-destruction of infected cells,” says Christopher Basler, professor of microbiology at Mount Sinai and co-author of recent studies done by a consortium of Ebola researchers. That group also said, in a paper published in the August 13 edition of the journal Cell Host & Microbe, that they figured out exactly how Ebola craftily disables signals the cells use to defend against attack: An Ebola protein called VP24 binds to a specific protein that takes signaling molecules in and out a cell’s nucleus. Without communication, the cell can’t call for help or kill itself. The virus then hijacks the cell, uses it to make more viruses, and spreads them to more cells. Next thing you know, the infected victim is bleeding from every orifice.

4. No one knows how it came to infect people.

There is a lot we think we know about Ebola’s origins. For starters, human beings are not its natural host, what epidemiologists charmingly call a “reservoir.” Scientists believe that Ebola’s reservoirs are fruit bats. Infected bats can pass the virus to a bunch of other mammals, like rats, primates, and other bats. No one is sure how people became exposed to Ebola, but the best guess is that the monkeys were the conduit. Local hunters in Africa likely became infected while butchering the animals. Anyone who became sick likely infected their family and, if hospitalized in an unsanitary facility, other patients.

5. Gumshoe detective work is the only way to stop an outbreak.

For all the biotech and medical savvy, it takes the investigative skill of a homicide detective to stop an outbreak. Professionals call it “contact tracing,” but it’s really man hunting. Here’s how it works: Ebola victim A is isolated and interviewed. Anyone who had close contact with A is put into isolation for 21 days. (In Texas, there are emergency medical technicians in this quarantine limbo right now.) If they exhibit no symptoms, they’re free to go. If they come down with Ebola, they become victim B, and another contact trace begins. If the investigators miss anyone, the outbreak will continue. The CDC even put out a cool poster of the process.

6. You can order it from a catalog.

The home page of BEI Resources has an interesting tab that reads “Ebola reagents available.” With a couple of clicks of the mouse, you reach a catalog of infectious disease materials available for order. Just what is going on here?

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) has set up BEI to make sure research facilities have access to microbiological materials that can help them develop diagnostics and vaccines for emerging diseases. Scientists must be registered with BEI to request materials. The real key here is the word “reagent,” which means the virus is not an active threat. For example, they have Gamma-irradiated Sudan Ebola virus that has been spun in a centrifuge to separate out cell fragments. Reagents won't spread, but they can serve as stand-ins during the development of tests. (On the Biosafety Level, or BSL, scale—which ranks the severity of infectious disease and sets baselines of which safety protocols need to be enforced to work with them in a lab—reagents are treated at Biosafety level 1; Ebola is a BSL-4, the top of the scale for risky bugs.) The best part of the catalogue is the disclaimer: “BEI Resources products are intended for laboratory research purposes only. They are not intended for use in humans.”

What’s the Difference Between Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes?

The odds are pretty good that you know someone with diabetes. Affecting more than 30 million Americans, it's an incredibly common—and commonly misunderstood—condition.

The word diabetes comes from the Greek for "siphon"—a reference to the frequent and copious urination the condition can cause. The term was coined in the first century by ancient physician Aretaeus the Cappadocian, who vividly (and inaccurately) described the theory that "great masses of flesh are liquefied into urine."

Today we know a bit more about this illness, what causes it, and the forms it can take.

Diabetes is ultimately a hormone problem. The hormone in question is insulin, which helps the body convert glucose (sugar) into energy. Your pancreas releases a little dose of insulin into your bloodstream when you eat. The insulin tells certain cells to gobble up the glucose you've just added. The cells take in the sugar and put it to work.

Or at least that's how it's supposed to go. If you've got diabetes, the situation looks a little different.

Like rheumatoid arthritis or celiac disease, type 1 diabetes is the result of a person being attacked by their own immune system. In rheumatoid arthritis, the issue manifests in the joints; in celiac disease, it occurs in the gut; and in type 1 diabetes, it's the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas that are targeted by the immune system.

Little fluctuations in blood sugar that would breeze right through a healthy system can wreak havoc in the body of someone with type 1. People with type 1 must keep a very close eye on their glucose levels and take supplemental insulin, in shots or through a pen, port, pump, or inhaler, as blood sugar that goes too low or too high can cause serious complications and even death.

Type 2 diabetes is caused by an obstacle at the other end of the road. Someone with type 2 diabetes typically may have enough insulin to function, at least to start; the problem is that their body can't process it. Unused glucose builds up in the bloodstream and the body begins to need more and more insulin to see any effect.

Type 2 used to be known as adult-onset diabetes and type 1 as juvenile diabetes, but both kids and adults can and do develop both types. And while being overweight or obese does increase a person's risk of developing diabetes, thin people get it too. To complicate matters even further, researchers in Finland and Sweden recently identified five subgroups of diabetes, each with its own unique characteristics and risks for complications. Knowing which subgroup people fall into may improve treatment in the future.

And while we're myth-busting: The idea that diabetes is the product of eating too much sugar is a gross oversimplification. How you eat affects your body, of course, and a low-carb diet can help keep blood sugar in check, but diabetes can be caused by a lot of different factors, including genetics, medications, and other health conditions. (If you're on insulin, talk to a doctor before starting a low-carb diet, as low blood glucose levels can result if not done carefully.)

There's no common cure for diabetes—at least not yet. An artificial pancreas and other treatments for the immune system and pancreas cells are all in the works. In the meantime, both types can usually be managed with medication, diet changes, exercise, and a lot of doctor visits.

The Colorful Kit Helping Diabetic Kids Manage Their Injections With Temporary Tattoos

No kid looks forward to getting their shots, but for children living with type 1 diabetes, insulin injections are a part of everyday life. When Renata Souza Luque, a graduate from the Parsons School of Design in New York, saw how much of a toll the routine was taking on her 7-year-old cousin Thomas, she designed a product to make the process a little easier for kids like him. The result, Thomy, is a tool kit that aims to make insulin injections less intimidating to young diabetics, as Dezeen reports.

The brightly colored, easy-to-carry kit is designed for ages 4 and up, with an insulin pen specifically made to fit in a child’s hand. In addition to being easier for kids to hold and use, the Thomy pen is designed to be more fun than your average insulin injector. It has a thermochromic release valve, so that when it touches the patient’s skin, it begins to change color. The color-morphing doesn’t serve any medical purpose, but it provides kids with a distraction as they’re receiving the injection.

A purple insulin pen in an orange case
Renata Souza Luque

The kit also includes playful temporary tattoos to help kids figure out where their injections should go. Diabetics need to change the site of their injections regularly to prevent lumps of fat from developing under the skin, and for patients injecting themselves multiple times a day, keeping track of specific spots can be difficult. Kids can apply one of Thomy's temporary tattoos over their injection sites as a map for their shots. Each time they need an injection, they wipe off one of the tattoo's colored dots with alcohol and insert the needle in its place. When all the dots are gone, it's time to move on to a new area of the skin.

A child wipes at a temporary tattoo on his abdomen with a cloth.
Renata Souza Luque

Souza Luque originally created Thomy for her senior capstone project, and last year it was named a national finalist at the James Dyson Awards. Most recently, she presented the concept at the Design Indaba conference in Cape Town in late February.

[h/t Dezeen]


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