Ebola was once thought to be a intermittent scourge limited to the bush of Central Africa. The virus would jump from its animal hosts to a nearby community eating those animals, but these outbreaks flared up and quickly “burned out,” killing about 1,600 people over the nearly four decades since the first case was identified in a Sudanese factory worker in 1976.
But now, with easier travel and more permeable borders, an Ebola outbreak has spread from rural villages to populous hubs where it has never been before, like Guinea’s coastal capital of Conakry, a city of some 2 million, where it is likely to become endemic. “Before this outbreak, Ebola was not known to be present in Sierra Leone, in Liberia, in Conakry. But it is now present there,” says Stephen Morrison, the director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If it recedes, it does not mean it is not present. You will see more outbreaks. It will be recurrent.”
It’s spreading faster and farther than ever before. One American who contracted the virus, Patrick Sawyer, 40, would have boarded a plane to Minnesota had he not died in Lagos. He had flown from Liberia to Ghana to Togo before arriving at Nigeria’s largest city. That’s five countries in one trip, with countless new pathways to infection along the route. Modern borders are as porous as the number of flights, goods and people that cross them, which is to say they are extremely permeable. Viruses are along for the ride, spreading farther than they ever have.