Pretty sneaky Ebola!

I know I know, Ebola is just soooo last year. In fact, once it became clear that (shocker) the most of Americans had about zero risk of catching Ebola all public interest pretty much seemed to drop off, despite the fact that hundreds of people in Africa continued to be infected and killed by the virus.

But every once in a while it seems that an article pops up to remind us how weird and scary the Ebola virus is. In the past week we’ve found out that not only can the virus be transmitted through sexual intercourse with a male survivor, but it can also keep living in your eyes long after it was cleared from the rest of the body.

To me, this is interesting because it’s introducing me to things about our immune system I never knew before. Like apparently the testicles have a less active immune system compared the rest of the body (fun fact, there is an entire field of study dedicated to the immune system within the testes called testicular immunology). Turns out, we have several areas in our bodies where antigens (basically things that don’t belong in your body) can be tolerated without causing an immune response. These areas are said to have immune privilege. These lucky little body parts can basically do whatever they want without fear of incurring the wrath of the antibodies, usually for good reason. In the testes this suppressed immune system is due to the fact that a male’s antibodies don’t recognize sperm and will attack and destroy them. And can you imagine if your body staged a full-scale attack every time you got a piece of dust in your eye? But, as is usually the case this privilege comes at a cost. If you turn off your security system it makes it a whole lot easier for the bad guys to get in, like Mr. Ebola.

But not all viruses need to find a weak spot to get past the body’s security guards. HIV for example is the master of disguise. This virus is so sure of itself it hides in the immune system itself. So sorry Ebola, you keep trying to be the most bad ass virus on the planet, but it looks like you still have a little work to do before I’m willing to dub you destroyer of all man kind.

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About Hannah Rosen

I am a PhD candidate at Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University. I am currently conducting research on color change in squid skin, but my real passion is making science accessible to those outside of the field so that everyone can love it as much as I do! Science is not just for the professionals. It is fun and something that everyone can and should enjoy. Deep down we are all science nerds, you just may not know it yet!

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