By Edward K. Chapnick

A virus, such as Ebola, is a microscopic organism that can reproduce without any sort of host and then infiltrate all types of organisms (animals, plants, bacteria, and fungi) — and viruses are everywhere. There are millions of viruses all over the world, and they exist in pretty much every ecosystem on earth.

Although most people think of viruses as bad, some viruses are actually good. Many of them perform helpful tasks. For example, viruses are key in the process of decomposition, particularly in the ocean. As viruses decompose other organisms, they generate and release carbon dioxide, which then feeds the marine plant life.

Viruses were first identified in the 19th century and were initially grouped separately from other microorganisms based on the fact that they were small enough to pass through filters that bacteria couldn’t.

Viruses spread in many ways:

  • Between plants by insects that feed on sap

  • By blood-sucking insects (otherwise known as vectors)

  • Through coughing and sneezing

  • Through feces

  • Through semen and vaginal fluid

  • Through exposure to infected blood and other body fluids

    Ebola spreads through infected blood and other body fluids (including feces, semen, and vaginal fluid).

Infections prompt a person’s immune system to fight and eliminate the infecting virus (or other germ). Antibodies are one part of the immune system, and they’re very specific — sort of like a lock and key. If you’ve been infected with a certain germ, the antibodies produced protect you from that specific organism and no others.

This is the basis for immunization, which utilizes specific components of the pathogen, or a live inactivated version of the germ, to produce an antibody response.

For Ebola, the antibodies to each specific species are different. Although scientists have been researching Ebola immunizations for several years, none have yet to be approved. The good news is that several immunizations in development show promise.

Antibiotics have no effect on viruses, so they clearly aren’t a viable treatment for people with Ebola.