Coping with Ebola and Other Emerging Infections

Reader Contribution by Stephen Harrod Buhner
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The Ebola virus is inherently a gloomy topic; it’s not cheerful, not fun. Ebola is an incredibly serious disease. Nevertheless, despite its terrible impact on people, it has a lot to teach us about our relationship with the world. More importantly, it can be treated — and not only with pharmaceuticals. Natural medicines can, in fact, be quite useful in helping prevent and treat not only Ebola, but other infections emerging from our impact on the planet.

In the fall of 2014, for the first time, Ebola virus disease (EVD — commonly called “Ebola” now) broke out of the African nations and reached (via airplane, as epidemiologists had long predicted it would) the United States, which caused, inevitably, a great deal of fear and subsequent panic.

One thing that became clear early on is that the United States and its legions of medical professionals were woefully unprepared — they just did not handle the arrival of the virus well. From improper sterile procedures and quarantines in the hospitals to the Centers for Disease Control allowing an infected nurse to fly on a plane with 140 other people (the worst-case scenario) the system immediately showed how unsuited it is to handling the emergence of a deadly, invasive pathogen.

Despite its fearsome nature, Ebola is only one of scores of emerging pathogens that the human species now faces. The problem, at root, is environmental — inextricably interwoven into our burgeoning population numbers and resultant impacts on the Earth’s ecosystems. Unfortunately the problems are only going to worsen as our numbers continue to rise and more landscape is altered for our use.

To get an idea of just how much impact our population increases are having, in 1950 the United States population was 150 million. In 1980 it was 226 million. In 2010 it was 308 million. Currently it is near 321 million. When I was born in 1952, the United States was structured around 170 million fewer people than it is now. All those additional people have needed houses and food and clothing and cars and jobs — and that need has put tremendous pressure on the Earth’s ecosystems. So, more forests are cut, more houses are then built in formerly undisturbed ecosystems. More land is turned to agricultural use, again disturbing habitat, in a process that is occurring across the globe.

The infectious pathogens that spring into our consciousness as the Ebola epidemic has done do so because they are jumping species. When their habitat and natural hosts are disturbed, they jump into new hosts, specifically humans, and we experience an epidemic. As population continues to increase (U.S. population is estimated to increase by another 100 million by 2060), more pressure will be put on formerly undisturbed habitat and more pathogens will jump species. Population problems, unfortunately, have a horrible way of correcting themselves; when we are the only large mammal species left, the pathogens have little option left except us for a host.

Viruses and bacteria have been around for some 4 billion years, we have been around perhaps 100,000. They have a lot more experience surviving than we do. It is an inescapable problem, a grim one that we are going to have to grapple with one way or another. The world is not, as many in the West have come to think it, a vast parkland existing for our amusement. It is a living, highly interactive ecological scenario, filled with highly intelligent organisms that respond when we disturb their world. The emergence of new pathogens is now happening with some regularity, as the emergence of Enterovirus D68 — also in 2014 — demonstrates.

As with many newly emerging pathogens, Ebola is fairly new to science. It was only discovered in 1976 during an outbreak in the Republic of Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Four species of Ebola subsequently were determined to cause human disease; the virus responsible for the 2014 outbreak is the Zaire variant which causes anywhere from a 40 to a 90 percent mortality rate. As with most in this genus, this variant is highly virulent and actively subverts both the innate and adaptive immune responses. The subversion of the immune response is a hallmark of many emerging stealth pathogens; it is one of the reasons they are so hard to treat. Although up to half of those infected are able to successfully mount an immune defense, in the rest, the virus so subverts the immune response that the disease quickly progresses to an acute hemorrhagic fever, which is often fatal.

Infection generally occurs from direct contact with infected bodily fluids such as the blood, vomit and diarrhea that accompany the disease. Infection through direct skin contact with an infected person (often through their sweat) or through contact with blankets infected people have used has also been documented, but is much less common. There is some concern among virologists that the disease could mutate to an infectious airborne type, but this has not been documented so far. And, of course, this mutation is the major problem with emerging pathogens, especially viruses.

Many of the stealth pathogens, such as the Lyme spirochetes and Ebola, are capable of extremely fast alterations of their genomic structure. It is more accurate to think of them as a genomic swarm rather than a collection of individual viruses and bacteria. Once they enter the body they immediately create multitudes of genetic variants which excel at hiding from the immune system. And, of course, at the same time they carefully modulate the host’s immune responses, altering it from the type of response specifically designed to deal with intracellular pathogens like Ebola (a Th1 response) into one that is not (a Th2 response).

As with most viruses, onset is flu-like with the usual fever, chills and so on, generally after a 4- to 10-day incubation period. A rash often appears around Day 5  — which is the only way to differentiate Ebola in its early stages from the flu. Generally, the liver, spleen, kidneys, adrenal glands and endothelial structures are heavily infected, often leading to organ failure and necrosis. During fatal infections, the endothelial structures that line the vascular system fail. They become porous and the blood begins to flow into the body cavities and out of every opening in the body. This is the essential nature of fatal hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola. These latter stages of the infection are caused by what is called a cytokine storm, which produces septic shock. Cytokines are small messenger molecules the body uses during infections and in response to cellular tissue damage — many cytokines are involved in inflammation processes. Once they are over-stimulated, septic shock and hemorrhagic blood loss can occur. This is the dynamic that occurred during the 1918 flu epidemic that infected some 500 million people and killed perhaps 50 million worldwide.

Although technological medicine can sometimes successfully treat emerging pathogens such as Ebola, doing so is often difficult. In general, hospitals deal with these diseases through intravenous fluid replacement, balancing and replacing electrolytes, keeping blood pressure up — in essence, palliative care. Massive transfusions can sometimes help, as well as the use of antibodies from someone who has survived the disease. Outcome is generally dependent on the health of the individual’s immune system. In other words, the poorer your immune health, the worse your outcome is likely to be.

Many people who are working with stealth and emerging pathogens are focusing on interrupting the cytokine cascade that these pathogens initiate in the body. If the viruses or bacteria are stopped from initiating inflammation, symptoms decrease and, quite often, the disease progression is interrupted and the infection’s impacts on the immune system are modulated. In addition, protecting the affected organs is crucial, specifically again: the liver, spleen, endothelial cells, kidneys and adrenals.

Pharmaceuticals are generally ineffective in accomplishing this; it just never has been the orientation of that approach to work with that kind of sophistication. Technological medicine has, with bacteria, focused primarily on killing the bacteria through the use of antibiotics. With viruses, the focus has been on the use of vaccines which, in some instances such as polio, have been very effective. Still, very few pharmaceutical antivirals exist. And there are few pharmaceuticals (though there are some) that can modulate cytokine profiles. Plant medicines, on the other hand, are capable of that kind of sophistication and can be extremely effective in treating stealth pathogens, protecting organs from damage, and directly killing viral pathogens.

A fairly wide range of plants has been found useful for interfering with viral penetration of host cells, as well as stopping the ability of viruses to replicate inside cells. Some of the better broad-spectrum antivirals are Chinese skullcap root (Scutellaria baicalensis), isatis (Isatis tinctoria), houttuynia (Houttuynina cordata), and licorice (Glycyrrhiza spp). Elder (Sambucus spp) is also good as an antiviral for this pathogen as it is directly active against Ebola viruses (though it has to be prepared differently from nearly all commercially available forms).

Here is a protocol to deal with Ebola infections, it can also be used prophylactically to help prevent infection. (Please note the following dosage guidelines are, at the lower end, protective; at the higher end, for use during early infection. Long-term use of these amounts is contraindicated.)

General antiviral formulation: Isatis, Chinese skullcap root, and licorice, equal parts of the tinctures, 1 tablespoon 3 to 6 times daily. The skullcap and licorice are also synergists, which will help increase the effectiveness of other herbs, supplements and pharmaceuticals that are being used. Licorice and skullcap root modulate IFN-gamma production and help move the body back to a Th1 immune response. Licorice helps protect the adrenals and kidneys. All the herbs in this formulation help reduce or reverse Ebola cytokines.

Elder tincture: Needs to be produced from stem, leaf, and berries as outlined in my book Herbal Antivirals (See The MOTHER EARTH NEWS store to purchase. — Mother). Elder is a strong emetic for some people so dose to your vomit tolerance, from 1/4 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon 3 to 6 times daily. (Meaning, if it makes you throw up, back off a bit.)

Genistein powder: 1 teaspoon 3 to 6 times daily. Inhibits both infection with the virus and transduction in infected cells.

Reishi (Ganoderma spp) tincture: 1 teaspoon 3 to 6 times daily. Directly increases IFN-a levels, increasing the killing power of the immune system toward the virus.

Milk Thistle Seed (Silybum marianum): standardized capsules, 2500 mg 3 to 6 times daily. Protects the liver and contains compounds that reduce viral replication and penetration of cells.

Danshen (Salvia miltiorrhizae) tincture: 1 tablespoon tincture 3 to 6 times daily. Protects the spleen, enhances immune function, reduces cytokine cascade.

Japanese knotweed root (Polygonum cuspidatum): 1 tablespoon of powder or tincture 3 to 6 times daily. Protects endothelial cell integrity, reduces cytokine cascade.

Andrographis (Andrographis paniculata) can also be of use. The herb has been found to contain molecular compounds that are a perfect match for docking with the Ebola virus, specifically the part of the virus that docks with host cells. Since the herb’s molecule has a stronger affinity for the virus than host cells, it can potentially work to stop viral docking with host cells. The herb  also has some good antiviral actions and can modulate immune function. 1 tablespoon of the tincture 3 to 6 times daily. Caution: This herb can cause severe hives in about 1 percent of the people who take it.

Although technological medicine is not good at handling cytokine storms and septic shock, herbs are very good at helping reduce the condition. This is because plants are exceptionally good at modulating cytokine expression in the body and shutting down bacterial and viral cytokine production. (Plants can’t run, they can’t hide, they can’t call the doctor and they have been dealing with bacterial and viral infections for several hundred million years. In consequence, they make their own medicines. The following herbal regimen has been found successful (in vivo) to reduce, even eliminate, septic shock. Given the acute circumstances of septic shock, the doses need to be high and frequent.

To reduce cytokine storm/septic shock (all of the following are tinctures):

1. Angelica sinensis/Astragalus spp: equal parts, 1 tablespoon each hour

2. Salvia miltiorrhiza: 1 tablespoon each hour

3. Kudzu (Pueria lobata)/Cordyceps: equal parts, 1 tablespoon each hour

4. Licorice/Chinese skullcap root: equal parts, 1 tablespoon each hour

As time goes on, we will, unfortunately, keep experiencing these kinds of emerging disease complexes. Still, we can educate ourselves and begin to accumulate our own medicines for use when we need them. The system that is in place is, as the recent Ebola outbreak showed, not all that good at it. That does not mean we have to settle for it: We can take our health in our hands, empower ourselves, and prepare for the future. If we want to and are willing.

NOTE:Buhner’s book, Herbal Antivirals, includes 51 pages of detailed chapter notes and scientific references and citations supporting this article. — MOTHER

(Top) Photo by Fotolia/CedarchisCociredeF: The Ebola virus is fairly new to science, having been discovered as recently as 1976.

(Bottom) Photo by Fotolia/Giovanni Cancemi: Infection occurs with direct contact with bodily fluids, such as blood or vomit.


Most of the plant medicines Buhner mentions are available at health food stores, natural grocers or online. His books, Herbal Antibiotics and Herbal Antivirals, provide detailed information on how to make your own medicines. Here are some of his favorite sources for herbal products:

Elk Mountain Herbs
Healing Spirits Herb Farm
Mountain Rose Herbs
Pacific Botanicals
Sage Woman Herbs
Woodland Essence
Zack Woods Herbs

Stephen Harrod Buhner is a renowned herbalist and the author of 20 books on nature, indigenous cultures, the environment and herbal medicine. He lectures regularly throughout the United States, and advocates the reincorporation of the artist, independent scholar, amateur naturalist and citizen scientist in U.S. society as a counterweight to the influence of corporate science and technology. 

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