Aug 04 2014

Ebola Pseudoscience

It is natural for there to be a certain amount of fear and uncertainty surrounding the reported outbreak of a deadly virus. The recent ebola outbreak is the worst in history, with over 800 deaths reported out of over 1,400 infections (case fatality rate so far of 57%).

Crises like these tend to bring out the best and the worst in people. Health care workers are literally risking their lives to contain this outbreak. Meanwhile, charlatans are coming out of the woodwork to exploit the crisis to spread their nonsense.

Ebola was first discovered in 1976. The virus exists in central and western Africa, and outbreaks are usually small, involving isolated villages. The virus can exist in fruit bats, which is the usual reservoir that spreads to humans. Other animals can be the vector, however, including chimpanzees, gorillas, monkeys, forest antelope and porcupines. Once a human infection occurs, however, the virus can spread from person to person.

Transmission is through contact of bodily fluids, such as blood. It is not airborne. The WHO reports:

EVD is a severe acute viral illness often characterized by the sudden onset of fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. This is followed by vomiting, diarrhoea, rash, impaired kidney and liver function, and in some cases, both internal and external bleeding. Laboratory findings include low white blood cell and platelet counts and elevated liver enzymes.

People are infectious as long as their blood and secretions contain the virus. Ebola virus was isolated from semen 61 days after onset of illness in a man who was infected in a laboratory.

The incubation period, that is, the time interval from infection with the virus to onset of symptoms, is 2 to 21 days.

Outbreaks are usually small because the illness is so acute. People get very obviously sick quickly, and most die. This outbreak is unusual because it has spread so far.

Unless you live in one of the outbreak areas in western Africa, you have little to fear from ebola. You are far more likely to die from the flu. Still, there are those willing to exploit fear of the virus to sell their pseudoscience.

Several outlets are selling essential oils for protection from Ebola. This site claims:

Thieves oil can be diffused to kill airborne microbes, applied topically on the skin to help the body fight off infection, and also used internally in homemade capsules. If Ebola was going around in my area, I would diffuse Thieves oil daily for 15 minutes every few hours. I would apply it to my feet and armpits 2x/day or more and take it in capsules at least 2x/day for preventive purposes.

Essential oils are essentially snake oil. They are used as drugs, either topically, inhaled, or orally, but without sufficient scientific evidence to back up their claims. There are no studies showing that Thieves oil can treat or prevent viral infections, let alone ebola.

Of course, homeopaths would have you rely on magic water to “cure” ebola. This site recommends:

1. Crolatus horridus (rattlesnake venom) 2. Bothrops (yellow viper) 3. Lachesis (bushmaster snake) 4. Phosphorus 5. Merc. cor.

Of course, first you have to dilute these out of existence. The homeopath warns:

We are once again faced with a virus that is poised sweep our country.

No, we’re not. Another site reassures its readers:

While this type of disease may seem far away from us now, bioterrorism is always a threat in today’s world, and with the ease of travel, it would not be difficult for a disease like Ebola to spread.

In the case of Ebola, no conventional treatment or vaccine is available. Fortunately for us, homeopathy has great renown for its healing ability in epidemics.

This is the two-part strategy of the con man – maximize fear, then offer a magical solution.

Ebola is not a chronic illness with waxing and waning symptoms. It is an acute deadly illness. It takes a certain amount of delusional chutzpah to claim that your magic water can “cure” it.

Such claims also bring into sharp relief some of the potential harm of believing in medical pseudoscience. CAM is not all benign warm-and-fuzzy treatments for quality of life. Many proponents believe in pseudoscience down to their core, and if they were set lose, they would replace science-based medicine with snake oil.

Of course, there is no effective specific treatment for ebola, or vaccine for prevention, which is why it is a tempting target for the charlatans. Treatment involves supportive intensive care. Immediate medical attention is critical.

Prevention is about avoiding exposure, properly dealing with those already infected and disposing of the dead and any infected fluids.

While this isn’t much, reason-based practitioners will eventually contain this outbreak as they have those before it. Homeopathy, essential oil, wishful thinking, and magic will add nothing to this effort, and the extent to which anyone believes that these treatments work will only increase their risk.

Finally, conspiracy theories about ebola are spreading faster than the virus. When anything bad happens in the world, conspiracy theorists simply make up crazy nonsense about it. Ebola, they claim, is a bioweapon. (If so, it’s a terrible bioweapon.) Why? Because conspiracy.

Ebola is a deadly virus and a challenge to infectious disease experts. Still, I would put my trust in science, as limited as it is at this point, rather than magic and nonsense.


Further ebola information from David Gorski at Science-Based Medicine

25 responses so far

25 thoughts on “Ebola Pseudoscience”

  1. Bronze Dog says:

    I’ve played a bit of Plague, Inc. One of the pathogen options is “Bioweapon” and its distinguishing characteristic is that its lethality stat automatically rises over time. This causes the world’s governments to take notice much more quickly and begin taking quarantine measures. The goal of the game is to wipe out humanity, and Bioweapon can be challenging because you’ll lose the game if you kill patients faster than you can infect new ones. (Even if you have animal vectors, it’s still game over if there are no infected humans.)

    Plague, Inc. also tracks the “severity” of your disease. The nastier the symptoms are, even if they’re not lethal, the more motivated the governments will be to quarantine the infected, close national borders, and research a cure. Ebola isn’t something that’s going to go unnoticed for very long.

    The way I see it, if you want a bioweapon to kill huge numbers of people, you make it look like a mild disease for the early stages in order to prevent quarantine measures from going up. Ebola sounds more like something you’d use against a few individuals, and even then, poison would probably be a much safer and more effective assassination method.

  2. carbonUnit says:

    Why would a homeopathic cure for Ebola use snake venom? (OK, it IS snake oil…) Wouldn’t they have to start with Ebola and then dilute it away?

  3. I’ve actually worked quite a bit in BSL3/BSL4 environments — not on Ebola, but with folks who do, and I’ve had the chance to go to a lot of seminars by, and to speak with, folks on the front lines of this stuff. I want to just clear up a couple minor misstatement, although the point on pseudoscience is certainly key.

    Two scientific points: it isn’t clear nor overwhelmingly accepted that bats are the major reservoir, and lethality rates vary an awful lot among strains.

    Now to correct a tactical error Dr. Novella and the first commenter make: no, Ebola’s a pretty decent candidate for a bioweapon, and that’s why it is studied at places like USAMRIID, NAMRU and Porton Down — which is to say, the US and UK bioweapons experts certainly think it’s a great candidate for a bioweapon. Dr. Novella seems to think, and Bronze Dog’s comment fleshes out, that it would be a terrible bioweapon because of the poor person-to-person spread. But, that’s exactly why it would be a pretty interesting bioweapon, and if you looked even cursorily at the history of biologics Americans and others have tried to weaponize, you’d see that. Anthracis, VEE, EEE, pestis, mallei, and a whole mess of toxins — note that these are _all_ things that don’t spread very well person-to-person. That’s _the whole point_. It’s what makes the thing a useful, somewhat controllable weapon, and yet you seem to be holding it up as “why we wouldn’t ever see this as a bioweapon.” Something like a staph enterotoxin is interesting because you can knock out or sicken an opposing force quickly. That’s what a bioweapon does. On top of that, well, think of stuff like “dirty bombs” which everybody in the national security complex frets about: as scientists you know those aren’t really all that horrible, but they are powerful weapons because of the tremendous psychological and social impacts they’d have. Well, that’s Ebola. Look, there’s a reason Andy Weber makes a big deal about being able to wander into labs and pick up unsecured Ebola samples.

    You’re right it might make a terrible doomsday weapon, and that might be germane for, say, Aum Shinrikyo or something like that. But Ebola’s a perfectly fine potential bioweapon.

  4. jasontimothyjones says:


    I think its the like treats like thing, rattle snake poison kills you if you don’t get treatment, Ebola kills you if you don’t get treatment, and both will kill you if you take Homeopathy rather than the appropriate treatment

  5. Kid – good points about the bioweaopn issue. I’m convinced (not that it is a bioweapon, just that it could be developed into one). I guess I had a James Bond villain bias when thinking about bioweapons, but you’re right. A tactical bioweapon would have a controlled spread, not wipe out a civilian population.

  6. eean says:

    Years ago I saw this great Frontline documentary about bioweapons research the Soviets did in the 80s. They used that tech to vaccinate cows by just spraying them down. Scary stuff.

    But the most important thing about modern bioweapons is that they have never been used. I remember in the 00s tthey vaccinated first responders against small pox, a program that surely fails any cost/benefit analysis we normally give to vaccination programs.

  7. jsterritt says:

    Dr Novella writes…

    “It takes a certain amount of delusional chutzpah to claim that your magic water can “cure” [ebola].”

    This is why I enjoy this blog so much: good humor and reasoned analysis is valued over cynicism. Here’s some cynicism:

    Quack cures work best (what a nightmare of a sentence!) when the illness is self-limiting and resolves on its own (but not fatally). Or when a condition or set of symptoms waxes and wanes in its progression. Or even better when there is no particular condition or illness at all, but rather the illusion, specter, or fear of one. How will this work out for quack ebola “cures”? For starters, all those who die will do so because they failed to use the magic on offer. We see this all the time with quack cancer cures: blame the victims for their failure to seek out the charlatans healers, instead placing their faith in evidence-based medicine (EBM). This is also known as the “People Who Die From Cancer: What a Bunch of A**holes” gambit. After blaming the victims, the quacks will rail against EBM (since it didn’t do the victims any good, it must be bad). Having established base camp near the summit of Mt Credulous, all the quacks have left to do is sell fear to the fearful and the alternative to the odious evidence-based treatments. When all American communities within hybrid or humvee distance of a Whole Foods or off-grid TEOTWAKI bunker fail to produce an ebola outbreak, there won’t be enough room on the Venn diagram of woo for all the overlapping correlations.

    Thank you, quackery and magical thinking, for seeing us through these perilous times!

  8. Maximilian says:

    @Steven Novella,

    You confessed to being wrong to Kid! Or at least you said you were convinced! I’m so happy. You preach separating facts from ego, and I believed that you did that, but this is the first time I’ve seen it in action.

    “Also @Steven Novella, are you alerted when someone comments on one of your posts? Because I have been considering posting a comment on one of your posts from a few years ago, but I wasn’t sure if you would ever see it.”

    ^the quotations are because I asked this same question on your previous post as well.

  9. Bruce says:


    You should go back and listen to old SGU podcasts. Steve and the other rogues have over time changed their views on many things when new evidence has arisen or someone with more expertise points out the errors in their thought process or understanding.

  10. Lswan says:

    any thoughts on CNN’s headline? “Secret serum likely saved Ebola patients”

  11. erickatarn says:


    The important quality of a homeopathic remedy is that the “active”(read:not present) ingredient causes symptoms like those you want to treat. Their sleeping pills are just dilutions of caffeine. Its nonsense if you try and apply cause and effect or any physical laws. So if snake venom causes fever or hemorrhaging, perfect, that’ll cure Ebola.

  12. eean,

    Modern bioweapons have absolutely been used, although, fortunately, not between great powers in some long time,

    I’m not sure about what you’re saying about the smallpox vaccine. A lot of us have been vaccinated against different variola for work reasons — man, that thing isn’t a vaacination, it’s a goddam hobby — and that might be what you’re thinking of. And there are still a few people who get smallpox vaccinations, but I don’t know that they’ve been just plain ol’ “first responders” for a very long time.

  13. Bill Openthalt says:

    Thieves oil? How aptly named.

    I tip my hat and bow respectfully to the volunteers who risk their lives to try and help the Ebola victims. In addition to the personal risk, t must be utterly disheartening to see more than half of your patients die, no matter how hard you try.

  14. Maximilian says:


    I’ll try to find time.

  15. iWeasel says:

    I read the essential oils article and I am astounded that someone actually states:

    “[Ebola is] a virulent microbe for which there is no vaccine or treatment that kills upwards of 90% of those it infects.”

    Then, in the same article, goes on to state that essential oils can protect you from becoming infected with a virus, followed by:

    “If I were exposed to Ebola or had reason to believe I could be sick with it, I would use some these oils every 10 minutes for a few hours, then cut back to every hour for the rest of the first day. Then I would use them every 2 waking hours of the day for at least a week, or longer if it was known I was sick.”

    Like they are going to feel well enough to do this! What they have actually stated is that, in spite of smothering yourself in essential oils, you still got sick!

    Incidentally, there is a comment response to your blog, Steve:

  16. BillyJoe7 says:

    “it must be utterly disheartening to see more than half of your patients die, no matter how hard you try”

    Some even die themselves:

  17. AmateurSkeptic says:

    Donald Trump just said “The U.S. cannot allow EBOLA infected people back. People that go to far away places to help out are great-but must suffer the consequences!”

    Effectively he is saying that “my uninformed, unfounded and ignorant fear is more important than your real life”. ….and please support me to be your president.

  18. Bruce says:

    And yet he will come to Scotland and oppose an off-shore windfarm because it interferes with the view from his proposed golf course.

    A horrible horrible man.

  19. BillyJoe7 says:


    “Why would a homeopathic cure for Ebola use snake venom?”

    Straight from the horses mouth:

    “Dr. Gail Derin studied the symptoms of Ebola Zaire, the most deadly of the three that can infect human beings. Dr. Vickie Menear, M.D. and homeopath, found that the remedy that most closely fit the symptoms of the 1914 “flu” virus, Crolatus horridus, also fits the Ebola virus nearly 95% symptom-wise! Thanks go to these doctors for coming up with the following remedies:
    1. Crolatus horridus (rattlesnake venom) 2. Bothrops (yellow viper) 3. Lachesis (bushmaster snake) 4. Phosphorus 5. Merc. cor.”

  20. Bruce says:


    I have left a comment there too, I am keen to see if it gets through.

    Interesting that many of these “cures” she has are easily bought on her website!

  21. tmac57 says:

    Pro tip:
    If you think you are infected with Ebola,and choose to shun Western medical help,then rub your body all over with the fluid expressed from a skunk’s anal scent glands every 10 minutes.
    It won’t help your condition,but at least it will keep others away from you.

  22. Bruce says:

    Seems my comment didn’t make it through the moderation process. You have to love the transparency.

  23. Stormbringer says:

    Ebola does scare me a bit, not so much the desease but the general stupidity that can be found in groups of people. Groups that think that have a cure and those that think they can help. Scientologist come to mind, they will come in from all over the world do their touch assists. Have no affect and then return home.
    We have gotten so far away from the life of have childrens death effecting every family and simple infection turning into a life treating event. The worst I could see happening is the virus gets to the us and then finds an animal carrier that it can hibernate in. I don’t think the American people could handle random outbreaks.

  24. venotar says:

    Out of curiosity – I have a number of coworkers who are a tad fringe in their thinking that keep talking about selenium as a way to “starve” viruses, generally, and ebola specifically.

    This smells suspicious to me, and the few references I can find to any research on it look dodgy. Anyone have a layperson’s summary of the medical consensus on this?

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