Microbes: Ebola Virus Study


When I chose to study Ebola as an example of a virus, it was in January, before the out break in Africa.  It was a difficult decision to go ahead with the study, when the children were being exposed on a daily basis, through newspapers and radio reports, to the ravaging affects Ebola was having abroad.  They were already asking questions and showing signs of worry.  Would doing an in-depth study of this virulent filo-virus make their fear greater?  Or would it perhaps arm them with enough information to feel a small amount of control over it?  I operated on the basis that knowledge is power, and decided to go ahead with the study.


Looking back I believe this was probably the right decision because the children now understand that if the Ebola Virus made it to our shores they could take precautions to prevent becoming infected.  I can see that, for them, the fear of an unknown virus which seemed to be out of control and killing hundreds of people in Africa, was much greater than the fear they now feel.  The fear now is educated.  They understand that culturally it is hard at times for the correct information to infiltrate the long-held beliefs of some of the African tribes.  They understand there have been enough corrupt governments for the people to question whether Ebola is something that is being ‘done’ to them by the people who ultimately hold power.  Their history makes it hard for these African people to trust westerners and their medicine.  Their cultural practices with regard for caring for their sick and burying their dead is also exacerbating an already tricky situation.  The children know that Ebola, whilst deadly if caught (up to 90% death rate), is not spread easily through air like the flu virus but through bodily fluids.  They are less scared now.  They understand its nature.

This study felt like real education should.  Current and necessary.  So often we teach and we learn but the point of it all is not clear.  That was not the case here.  Knowledge is power and that is what we were gaining.  A power over an incredibly awful virus, which remains dead whilst unattached to living cells, only to spring to life once inside a cell, replicating furiously and creating a hot zone of haemorrhagic mess within weeks of infection.

Our study has been somewhat different from our previous microbial studies.  We used The Hot Zone as our living book:


And really, it could get no more ‘living’ or real than Preston’s very well researched book about the Ebola outbreak in Reston Washington in 1989.  From the Amazon website:

Imagine a killer with the infectiousness of the common cold and power of the Black Death. Imagine something so deadly that it wipes out 90% of those it touches. Imagine an organism against which there is no defence. But you don’t need to imagine. Such a killer exists: it is a virus and its name is Ebola. The Hot Zone tells what happens when the unthinkable becomes reality: when a deadly virus, from the rain forests of Africa, crosses continents and infects a monkey house ten miles from the White House. Ebola is that reality. It has the power to decimate the world’s population. Try not to panic. It will be back. There is nothing you can do…

The book is a thorough exploration of the haemorrhagic sister filo-viruses  Marburg and Ebola.  It is essentially non fiction but reads like a thriller fiction.  Whilst there were slow periods in the book, the start is so strong that not finishing it is asking the impossible.  It’s grip is strong until the end and offers much more than mere knowledge of Ebola.  For more information see here.  It was for us a study in African geography, learning about why Ebola was named such, where its namesake river ran from and to, Kitman Cave and the possible origins of what was known as Ebola Zaire.  The children studied maps and atlases throughout our time reading the book:


They learnt and understood about the different strains and therefore the apparent genetic changes that the Ebola Virus is able to appropriate and the terror of what this fact might bring to it and our future.

I can’t in all honesty recommend the book without first explaining that it is very explicit in describing the effects of Marburg and Ebola.  There is much bad language and mentions of essentially adult themes.  It was not difficult however to use different words, miss out the repetitions of death related descriptions and brush over the adult themes which crop up.  For me, this book was well worth doing all that for what is gained by reading it.  However, it is not for the faint hearted, nor for the even slightly sensitive.  Our family tends not to be too sensitive, although I do have one child who is potentially affected by such things.  I still felt it was important enough to go ahead with.  Although the book graphically describes the effects on humans of this haemorrhagic disease, I promised the children I would skip over all but the first description, so they were not repetitiously exposed to such vile word pictures.  In addition, I suggested they kept their own response journal.  This worked incredibly well, and I was interested to see them draw what I was reading out each day, as well as including self penned newspaper reports and articles.  But most of all were pictures upon pictures expressing the scenes described in the book.  They finished one journal, enthusiastically asking for a new one.  Here are a few pages from their journals:

Ribbet collagehot zone

Ribbet collagehot zone2

Ribbet collagehotzone3

Ribbet collagehotzone4

What struck me most about these journals was how much retention each child had.  I could literally ask anything about what we had read, from asking the names of the first person who died from it, to the name of the caves, rivers and lands it affected.  All three were able to quickly flick through their journals to check information.  They knew where to look and knew what they had done to record the information learnt.

I can’t begin to tell you just how powerful a study this was.  Maybe it was the quality of the book, or maybe it was the immediate relevance to their lives today – whatever it was I am certain they won’t be forgetting it in a hurry.

End note: This book breaks almost every single one of my ‘criteria for safe reading material’ for my children.  I would NEVER have allowed them to read it on their own.  Reading it to the children allowed me the very important task of heavily editing it in terms of language and gory details.  It was well worth the effort but please read it yourself first before deciding whether to allow your child to read it alone.



  1. I think it is wonderful that you equipped them with knowledge about a topic that might of otherwise been terrifying to hear about. Perfect way of dealing with the media. I understand about editing reading to kids. I do that sometimes too when I want them to know the material but it has objectionable things in it. Another excellent study!!

  2. Excellent study! Sometimes the best books are not the “child-friendly” ones. I really appreciate the book recommendation, and your thoughtful warnings.

  3. We have our third health care worker back in the states for treatment from Ebola. The first two have recovered. It is scary, but it is a good thing that your children have been educated. Knowledge seems to remove some of the fear.

  4. The fear of the unknown is always the worst fear, so teaching your kids what they don’t need to fear about Ebola seems wise to me. The book also sounds fascinating. My sister just moved to Africa as a missionary (not the part that has been affected by this outbreak) but I find myself drawn to any information on the continent – I really know so little.

    1. I can understand you wanting to know more about the continent your sister is on. The book is great but graphic, very educational though. I do hope your sister remains safe.

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