WASHINGTON — Although the Ebola virus might remain mostly confined to West Africa, it has infected the Western imagination. This eruption of uncontrolled nature into what developed nations consider serene modernity is more disturbing to the emotional serenity of multitudes than it is threatening to their physical health.

Perhaps the world periodically needs an equivalent of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, a chastening reminder that nature still has something to say about what human beings proudly, and prematurely, call "the conquest of nature." The earthquake disturbed Europe's Enlightenment serenity: Perhaps God has not really ordained a benevolently ordered universe.

In America, the AIDS epidemic of the early 1980s was particularly traumatic. This was so even though the public health threat from the disease was limited because the primary means by which it was transmitted were known risky behaviors involving sex or needles shared by drug users.

AIDS disabused Americans of their polio paradigm. The 1950s success of the Salk vaccine in removing the terror of polio had encouraged the belief that pharmacology could slay all infectious diseases.

HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, probably came from chimpanzees in Africa and infected humans who hunted them around the 1930s. HIV was spread by truckers who patronized prostitutes along Africa's improved roads. Boeing and Airbus, two manufacturers of the aircraft that made intercontinental travel accessible to multitudes, have thereby complicated public health officials' task of quarantining diseases. The man tentatively identified years ago as "Patient Zero," who supposedly introduced HIV to America, was an Air Canada flight attendant.

A nuclear weapon in a terrorist's hands would be a nightmare, but not necessarily the worst such. The scientific infrastructure for the manufacture of such a weapon is expensive and complex, and the means of delivering it to a target can be, too. A biological weapon can be delivered by a terrorist carrying a vial of smallpox in his pocket.

Epidemics — silent and invisible during their incubation, swift and unpredictable in their trajectories — are devastating terror weapons, as participants discovered from Dark Winter. This 13-day simulation of a bioterrorism attack — it postulated the release of smallpox in Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Atlanta — was conducted in June 2001.

Smallpox is easily transmitted by breathing air exhaled by infected persons, and the fatality rate is about 30 percent. Dark Winter concluded that a smallpox virus released in those three cities would reach 25 states and at least 10 other countries within two weeks, bringing unprecedented panic with it.

In 1947, a single American smallpox case caused 6.4 million Americans, including President Harry Truman, to be vaccinated. According to a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center report, "There has never been a smallpox outbreak in such a densely populated, highly mobile, unvaccinated population" as today's America. The UPMC report says smallpox vaccinations in America stopped in 1972, and vaccine production facilities were closed in the 1980s. Since 9/11, production has resumed.

In 1980, the World Health Organization declared smallpox, a killer of hundreds of millions, eradicated. Today, supposedly only America and Russia retain samples of the smallpox virus. Last month, six glass vials of it were found in a storage room at the National Institutes of Health in suburban Washington.

Amid this month's commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of history's most calamitous man-made event, World War I, remember its ending: A worldwide influenza pandemic arose from wartime conditions. It began in 1918 and killed more people in a year (about 50 million) than the war killed (about 16 million, military and civilian) in four years. Nature, Ebola reminds us, remains a creative danger.

 

George F. Will is a columnist for the Washington Post.