Yesterday, Xeni told you that the deadly virus Ebola has reemerged in Uganda. The disease has actually been infecting and killing people in the western part of the country for three weeks. We're hearing about it now, in big font, because some sources have reported that the disease has reached Kampala, the country's capital. (Other sources say only that one person infected with Ebola traveled to Kampala, and that there have been no reports of anyone catching the disease in that city.)
The Kampala link is somewhat concerning. Previous Ebola outbreaks have centered on rural areas, villages, and mid-sized towns. With the exception of a handful of highly monitored cases that centered around research labs in the U.S. and Europe, and the case of a medical worker who accidentally brought the virus to Johannesburg, South Africa in 1996, Ebola has not previously found its way into any major global hubs of human life. Kampala may not be on your radar with New York, Tokyo, or London, but air travel and money give it strong ties to the rest of the world and population density gives it a much larger number of potential victims within striking distance.
But here is a key thing about Ebola—it's scary as hell, but it burns itself out pretty fast and it's not that easy to spread. On average, Ebola kills a majority of the people it infects, and it kills them quickly. The time between infection and onset of symptoms ranges from two to 21 days. That means the virus only has so long to find new hosts. Meanwhile, Ebola isn't airborne. To catch it, you have to have contact with infected blood or bodily fluids. Historically, it's been a disease of people and their medical workers, or people and their immediate families. In rural communities, Ebola can burn through the small, isolated population and find itself with nowhere to go in the span of a couple months.
That isolation has been aided by the traditional practices of village leaders. I'm currently reading No Time to Lose ">No Time To Lose, the memoir of Peter Piot, a microbiologist who was part of the team that first identified and named Ebola back in 1976. In the book, he recalls how he and a World Health Organization team arrived in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo to find that local people had already blocked off roads in infected regions—part of traditional semi-quarantine measures that probably originated as a way to deal with smallpox.
If it is loose in a capital city, then Ebola has a bigger link right now to the rest of the world than it really has had in the past. That doesn't mean, though, that it's likely to make the jump to the global stage ... or even out of Uganda. Remember, this isn't something that can spread to other people on a plane just by breathing. It takes a more intimate sort of contact. And Ebola sickens people fast enough and hard enough that the virus might be its own worst enemy when it comes to widespread infection. None of this means Ebola won't ever pop up in the wilds of the United States. Just that the global spread of this virus is not inevitable in the same way as something like the flu. The same traits that make Ebola terrifying have also, so far, limited its scope to regional outbreaks.
14 People have died so far in Uganda, and at least 36 cases have been identified.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.