Ebola and AIDS: Is There a Connection?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The Hot Zone" by Richard Preston. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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Is there a relationship between Ebola and AIDS? Did they originate from the same place?

Ebola and AIDS are both viruses, but are very different in the way the infect people. They are also different in the ways they affect the body.

Keep reading to learn more about the relationship between Ebola and AIDS.

Visiting Kitum Cave—The Origin of Ebola and AIDS?

Four years after Ebola Reston hit the monkey house, the author, Richard Preston, took his own journey to Kitum Cave. Preston wanted to look around the cave, where the subject of all his research presumably originated. 

When he arrived near Kitum Cave, he set up camp in the same area where Charles Monet had camped on New Year’s Eve, 13 years earlier. 

Preston Explores Cautiously

The author knew all too well the risks the cave held, since it was cited as a possible origin for both Ebola and AIDS. In an abundance of caution, he brought all the pieces of a Level 4 biological space suit for fieldwork, including a mask with air filters. He even brought bleach to decontaminate his suit after exiting the cave. 

As the author approached and explored the cave, he was acutely aware of every possible virus host and exposure risk that he encountered, including:

  • The nettles on the path to the cave that created tiny punctures in the skin, and which could carry the virus
  • The swarm of moths and other flying insects that whirled around the mouth of the cave
  • Sharp salt crystals that lined portions of the walls and roof 
  • Sharp fragments of rock scattered on the ground
  • The guano (bat droppings) of fruit- and insect-eating bats that covered many surfaces of the cave
  • Abruptly low ceilings in certain places, which made it easy to bump and cut your head
  • Spiders that lived deep in the cave, which could have contracted the virus from insects they ate, and which could infect a person with a bite

Ebola and AIDS: Parallels?

So if there an actual connection between Ebola and AIDS? In Preston’s route to Mount Elgon, he had to travel a stretch of the Kinshasa Highway, which stretched across Africa east-to-west, passing through Kenya, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. When sections of Kinshasa Highway were paved in the 1970s (several sections still remain unpaved), the amount of traffic along the route boomed, ultimately leading to the spread of AIDS.

The origin of AIDS was just as murky as the origin of Ebola, but most experts agreed the viruses probably jumped to humans from primates in the same region around Mount Elgon.

When Ebola emerged, infections erupted like wildfire, quickly spreading and rapidly killing its victims. By contrast, HIV’s outbreak was a slow burn, because it incubated for years before its victims finally died. 

Scientists have struggled to develop a vaccine for AIDS because the virus mutated so quickly. In fact, an infected person could die with multiple strains present in her body—all of which mutated from the single strain that originally infected her. The virus’s rapid adaptability also made it extremely resilient in the face of changes. 

Could AIDS and Ebola Be the Earth’s Defenses?

Preston mused that viruses like Ebola and AIDS could be the planet’s natural method of defending against the boom of human population and development. These and other emerging viruses originated in ecosystems under duress, and the strain was often due to human encroachment. 

Rainforests—like the one on Mount Elgon—were fertile grounds for viruses because viruses lived in insects and animals, and the majority of the earth’s living things resided in rainforests. But rainforests around the world were also threatened by factors like deforestation and water degradation.  

It was as if deadly viruses were like the earth’s immune system response against a harmful parasite: people. 

Ebola and AIDS: Is There a Connection?

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Richard Preston's "The Hot Zone" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Hot Zone summary:

  • The many different strains of Ebola, including the deadliest kind with a kill rate of 90%
  • How scientists unraveled the mystery of a new strain of Ebola
  • How Ebola could become airborne, becoming one of the deadliest viruses known

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