KENEMA, SIERRA LEONE - AUGUST 26: Members of a volunteer medical team wear special uniforms for the ... [+] burial of 7 people, sterilized after dying due to the Ebola virus, in Kptema graveyard in Kenema, Sierra Leone on August 26, 2014. In recent months, Ebola a contagious disease for which there is no known treatment or cure has claimed at least 1429 lives in West Africa, mostly in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. (Photo by Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Gett Images)

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The world lost the preeminent virus “hunter,” Dr. Karl M. Johnson on October 10, 2023. Karl played a critical role in the discoveries of some of the most horrific diseases on the planet: the viral hemorrhagic fevers, including the Machupo and Ebola viruses. He also led in the development of laboratory safety innovations, which reduced the risk to laboratory workers while studying such deadly viruses.

What Is A Virus Hunter?

Virus hunters are the men and women who run boldly into harm’s way, frequently in the middle of epidemics, where others fear to tread. They pursue their prey in austere, hazardous settings to root out the origins of some of the deadliest diseases on the planet, with names like Ebola, Marburg and Lassa. Their mission: to determine what causes the diseases, where they exist in nature, how they are transmitted and how to stop them. It is a relatively small “club,” and their work frequently extends back to the high containment laboratories that have specialized air handling and filtration, decontamination protocols, equipment and procedures to support their work.

What Is A Viral Hemorrhagic Fever?

There are four families of viruses that cause the diseases known as viral hemorrhagic fevers (VHFs), a term that originates from two characteristics of the illnesses: fever and hemorrhage (bleeding), with the latter occurring in some of the most severe cases. Unlike what you might see in the movies, though, people don’t actually bleed from their eyeballs (although they can have bleeding in the eyes). Instead, they develop problems clotting their blood, typically leading to blood oozing from sites where the skin has been punctured by a needle or other sharp instruments to obtain a blood sample, insert an intravenous catheter or conduct other medical procedures. Other sites of bleeding can include the gums around the teeth, and in the most severe forms, from the gastrointestinal tract resulting in bloody vomit or diarrhea. In addition to causing bleeding, the VHFs also happen to kill efficiently, with death rates approaching 80-90% in some outbreaks.

Created by CDC microbiologist Frederick A Murphy, this transmission electron micrograph (TEM) ... [+] revealed some of the ultrastructural morphology displayed by an Ebola virus virion. Ebola is a severe, often-fatal disease in humans and nonhuman primates (monkeys, gorillas, and chimpanzees) that has appeared sporadically since its initial recognition in 1976. Image courtesy CDC/Frederick A Murphy, 1976. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images).

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