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The ugly viruses

Viruses are really tiny, way smaller than bacteria.  You cannot see them with an ordinary microscope like bacteria; you need to use a very special microscope to see viruses properly.  Viruses are parasites – they only have their genetic material (genes) wrapped up inside a strong ‘coat’ made of protein so they need a host to survive.

Viruses are very clever – some don’t die off if they don’t have a host, they just hibernate (they become dormant) and wait for the right conditions to come along so they can make copies of themselves.  Viruses can spread very easily from one person to the next just by touch or by sneezing or coughing when they fly out into the air in tiny water droplets.  If a person doesn’t cover their mouth and nose when they sneeze or cough, you could breathe in their virus!  Other viruses are spread when people are lazy about personal hygiene and they don’t wash their hands very often, especially when they have been to the toilet.  Viruses also wait in areas you wouldn’t expect them to like door-handles or telephones so you should make sure to clean up after you and that you wash your hands regularly!

Before scientists knew how viruses passed from one person to the next, many people died in pandemics – that is, a disease that spread throughout the whole world.  From 1918 to 1919, a flu pandemic occurred.  This was also known as the ‘Spanish flu’ and killed between 50 and 100 million people across the world – that’s 2.5% - 5% of the total population of the world at that time!!!  The Spanish flu was unusual as it attacked young healthy people and it killed up to 20% of the people infected (most flu viruses are only fatal in about 0.1% of cases and these are usually the very young and the very old).  The disease was first seen in the USA, in Kansas, and it spread to just about every place in the world.  Not everyone was infected, only about 20% of the world’s population.  Many places escaped because of quarantine (where infected people were separated from healthy people) and simply things like wearing facemasks. 

Scientists now know much more about how viruses like the flu work but viruses really are very clever.  They can change themselves (mutate) very quickly so as quick as a new vaccine is made, a new type of flu appears.  Viruses are different to bacteria which can be treated with antibiotics so there is no point taking antibiotics if you have a virus because they don’t work! 

There are lots of really ugly viruses out there, many of which mean that the patient will die.  Viruses cause diseases like rabies which comes from the Latin word for ‘rage’ or ‘madness’.  The rabies virus makes the brain swell up and causes so much damage that the infected animal or person can have foam coming from their mouths which makes them look like there are in a terrible ‘rage’.  There is a vaccine for rabies and people who are infected can be cured if they are treated quickly enough. 


Another well known ugly virus that causes a lot of fear when its name is mentioned is the Ebola virus.  Ebola is also known as a hemorrhagic fever because of the symptoms it causes.  When the Ebola virus enters a host, it can cause a high fever and internal or external bleeding (haemorrhage).  Most people who catch the Ebola virus die because it spreads so quickly and easily.  Usually, the virus gets into as many hosts as possible until there are no hosts left.  It then dies out but scientists don’t know what happens next.  Sometimes Ebola just appears out of nowhere after years of hiding but it is not known where it goes or how it gets from place to place.  Usually, the Ebola virus causes lots of problems in the very poor areas of the world, where hospitals and hygiene are not as good as in the developed world. 

Some of the ugliest viruses are actually viruses that are quite common now.  When the world was a mystery to most people, there was very little travel from one place to another.  That all changed when technology was invented that allowed people to travel great distances by sea.  Explorers found the ‘new worlds’ but brought a very unwelcome gift with them – disease.  The explorers brought diseases that were very common in their home country but that had never been seen in the country they ‘discovered’.  The native people of the new worlds did not have any immunity or protection from diseases like flu, smallpox, measles…lots of different common diseases.  There was no vaccination either, so entire tribes and populations were killed by simple diseases.  Now that travel around the world is very easy, the same problem doesn’t exist although lots of people get infected with bacteria and viruses spread by spending long hours in the same space with lots of people!  If one person is sick on a plane for example, other people on the plane will feel sick pretty soon too!

There are new viruses being discovered all the time so you probably will get sick from a virus at some stage!  If you take care that your personal hygiene is good, your environment is clean and you are fit and healthy, you won’t feel too bad and will recover more quickly.  Take care when you are sick, not to pass it on to others – just rest and give your body a chance to recover!


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