The Ebola Virus was first documented in 1976 when two outbreaks occurred in Sudan (now Sudan and South Sudan) and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). The virus was named after the Ebola river in Zaire which runs nearby the Yambuku village which suffered the second ever outbreak of the virus. Ebola is a member of the Filoviridae family of viruses and is poorly documented and understood when compared to more common diseases.
Three common strains of Ebola were observed during earlier outbreaks namely Sudan, Zaire and Reston. The Reston strain is of particular interest being the only strain to exhibit fully airborne traits. Later, the Côte d’Ivoire strain was discovered when a ethologist infected herself while performing a necropsy on a chimpanzee in 1994. The 2014 Ebola outbreak was caused by the Zaire strain of Ebola. The virus is Zoonotic and usually found in animal reservoirs with human infections resulting from accidental infection in laboratories or the consumption of incorrectly prepared “bush meat”.
The first known Filovirus was Marburg which was discovered in 1967 during an outbreak in West Germany (now Germany). Marburg is similar to Ebola and outbreaks are rare. Uganda has a history of Marburg outbreaks which are typically contained rapidly through isolation and contact tracing. It is generally thought that Filoviridae have existed for thousands of years based on DNA evidence. Several ancient viruses share genetic material with modern examples of the virus family and some theories have been put forward suggesting that the “Plague of Athens” and the “Black Death” may have resulted from a Filovirus similar to Ebola.
Several conspiracy theories have suggested that Ebola may have been manufactured for use as a bio weapon. There is very little evidence to support such claims. After the discovery of Marburg and Ebola several documents have been declassified evidencing attempts to weaponize the virus however no success has been documented.
The plague is caused by a bacteria known as Yersinia pestis which is typically transmitted to humans by fleas. Y. pestis is responsible for several types of plague with at least one capable of aerosol transmission. The Plague is often referred to as the Bubonic Plague which has become synonymous for all common forms of plague.
By Photo Credit= Content Providers= CDC/ Courtesy of Larry Stauffer, Oregon State Public Health LaboratoryRsabbatini at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
The “Black Death” is frequently attributed to a form of plague most commonly Bubonic Plague. The Black death lasted from 1346 to 1353 and resulted in as many as 200 million deaths with nearly a third being attributed to Bubonic Plague according to some sources. Ebola made an appearance as a possible “Black Death” suspect in 2001 when it was suggested that the Black Death could have been caused by a Filovirus given that it spread far quicker than expected. The “Black Death” is also documented to have a significantly long incubation time which has been observed in both the Ebola and Marburg outbreaks. A large amount of the evidence which blamed the “Black Death” on the plague results from DNA confirmations that Yersinia pestis was present in samples of confirmed victim remains.
Table Comparing Ebola to the Plague
||Plague (Yersinia pestis)
||1.3 (Possibly Higher when Airborne)
||5 (CDC), 11 (WHO)
||25-90% / ~70% 2014 Outbreak
||11% with Treatment
||No, Possible Aerosol
||Bodily Fluids (Almost All)
||Flea Bites, Aerosol
||Yes, rarely used
||Humans, Primates, Bats
||Very Low Prior to 2014
||Less than 100 Confirmed
|Largest known Outbreak
||2013/14 West Africa
||Black Death (75-200 million deaths)
|| Active until 1959
||Thousands of Years
||Thousands of Years
The First Bio-Weapon
The plague is very likely the first known example of a biological weapon in warfare. In 1347 victims of the plague were catapulted into the city of Caffa (modern day Feodosia) leading to an outbreak. One theory is that the sufferers fled to Europe taking the plague with them. Japan used a similar approach against China during the second world war when contaminated rice and wheat dropped from an airplane resulted in a outbreak causing 121 deaths.
The idea that several diseases including the plague were caused by “bad air” is called the Miasma Theory. Upon the discovery of “germs” including bacteria and viruses the theory was replaced by the Germ theory of disease. It was thought that the vapor or fumes from decaying organic matter could cause disease. Plague Doctors were known for their beak like breathing apparatus which attempted to purify the poisonous air.
Plague is treated with antibiotics in the modern world and the prognosis is generally good if a patient seeks medical attention at the first sign of symptoms. Nostradamus famously treated plague sufferers with rose hips which provide a rich source of Vitamin C.
The plague is arguably one of the most infamous diseases and the “Black Death” is a well known pandemic across the world. Many modern medical practices are routed in the treatment of the plague including the concept of isolation and the purification of air via a respirator. The approaches taken during plague outbreaks were often ineffective but the concepts have found relevance in modern medicine.