Geographies – latitudes, climates, soils, settlements, shared spaces in the biosphere (where the lithosphere, atmosphere, and hydrosphere intersect), cultural practices, the size of Earth, and vast distances. Jet travel. Advanced medical and communications technology.

How are they all connected to a deadly virus that has left thousands dead in its wake? And more are dying every day!

We share the biosphere with a staggering number of other life-forms. Our interactions with the other life-forms is not always safe for us. Time and again in human history, we have faced large-scale deaths due to these dangerous interactions – in the form of diseases, especially ones that spread. Over time, we have also developed many tools with which we try to reduce these kinds of dangers. We have had mixed results so far.

When we look at the current story of the spread of the Ebola disease, we find that we have a very wide variety of tools to deal with it. This is where the difference between knowing a subject (e.g.: geography, medicine, biology, law) and knowing a discipline (e.g.: geography, medicine, biology, law) becomes crucial.

When you study a subject you acquire “facts” and “information” (just look at your geography or any other textbook). When you study a discipline, you combine that information with all sorts of other knowledge, and your social and ethical responsibilities. Using these together, your work uses discipline to help make the world around you a better place.

This distinction between subject and discipline is at the centre of all the articles in this column.

To understand and deal with Ebola, one of the disciplines you will need is geography.

Geographical questions

Here are some questions that can help understand the geography of the Ebola pandemic currently unfolding:

  1. What exactly is Ebola?
  2. What are its symptoms?
  3. Where did it start?
  4. Why there?
  5. When did it start there?
  6. Where is it spreading now?
  7. Why is it spreading to those areas?
  8. How is it spreading to those areas?
  9. Should we, in India, be concerned about this? Why or why not?

I will get you started on this exploration with some points. However, you have to take it forward yourself – with your teachers, parents, friends, etc. Or you can contact me for help. This is an excellent case study to follow up on how geography helps explain the spread of this deadly disease.

The Pathogen

An organism that causes disease is called a pathogen (Greek, pathos suffering, genes producer, that which causes). Among the millions of species with whom we share the biosphere, there are many that we cannot easily see. They are inside us and around us. And they keep moving around – from species to species, and from place to place.

Viruses are one kind of pathogens.

Viruses exhibit both living and non-living characteristics. When they are in a favourable environment (usually in the body of an organism that is suitable for them), they act like living things – they multiply and spread. When they are not in such an environment, they are inert.

When you catch a cold, some kind of cold virus has entered your body and come to life. If your immune system is healthy, it will fight the infection off in a few days’ time and you will soon recover your health. Until the next time you catch a cold!

Ebola is also caused by a virus. Except, this virus is super deadly. Here is a picture of the Ebola virus.


Once the virus infects the human body, it can take anywhere from about 5-6 days to 21 days for the symptoms to become visible. So, often, a person may be infected with Ebola and not even know it. Symptoms start with high fever, headache, and body ache. Soon, rashes develop on the body, and internal bleeding will follow. The patient becomes extremely weak and unable to stand or walk.

Geographical origin

At the moment, the scientific understanding is that Ebola originated in tropical Africa and has established a stronghold there. Look at this map of Ebola in Africa since the earliest reports of its occurrence: (Source: WikiMedia). (Clicking on the image opens the full-size version in a new window/tab)

Origins of Ebola



The organism that the pathogen lives in is called a host. The host is often also a victim. Sometimes, the host transmits the pathogen to other hosts. In such cases, the host also becomes a vector. (Many times, the pathogen does not infect the vectors – it just uses them as a vehicle to move from one host to another.)

Here is a picture that shows the way Ebola is transmitted from one species to another (including humans) (Source: WikiMedia). (Clicking on the image opens the full-size version in a new window/tab)


Ebola spreads by contact with bodily fluids (even a drop is enough) of infected people. Thus, the objects (e.g.: clothing, cups, etc.) that an infected person may use could transmit the virus to another person. In fact, any kind of direct contact with an infect person brings contact with some type of body fluid and can cause the virus to spread.

Diseases that spread are called epidemics. Epidemics that spread across national boundaries are called pandemics. There have been several pandemics in world history – bubonic plague, influenza, measles, malaria, HIV, etc.

Ebola is a pandemic.

Every day, there are reports of greater number of people infected by this virus and many dying as a result. Now there are reports of Ebola in Europe and the USA. The World Health Organization (WHO) is raising alarms that this is a serious threat to the whole world and is calling on nations to offer a coordinated response to the crisis.

Things you can do:

  1. Visit the Perry Castañeda online map library and examine the maps relating to the emerging Ebola story (or links to them):
  2. With the aid of an atlas or some other source of maps of Africa, make a list of the geographical characteristics shared by the countries where Ebola has been reported from the beginning (shown on this map).
  3. Read Part 2 of this article. (Page opens in a new window/tab).
  4. Then visit the TIIGS page where more online resources are available and learn more about this topic.

(A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition, 06 November 2014)



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