8 Historically Terrifying Viruses

Cynthia Goldsmith, CDC // Public Domain
Cynthia Goldsmith, CDC // Public Domain

It seems like a new virus that's trying to kill us pops up somewhere in the world every other day. While the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other health organizations monitor the new coronavirus, officials continue to announce the rapid spread of new COVID-19 infections and deaths around the world.

Despite modern sanitary practices, prevention strategies, and vaccines, there is much to fear from tiny imperialistic pathogens—invisible to all but the most powerful microscopes—that invade our cells to replicate, messing them up like a coke-fueled rock band destroys a hotel room after a concert.

All the hand sanitizer, face masks, and toilet paper in the world can’t save us from some of history’s nastiest viruses and the horrifying diseases they cause in humans. Here are eight of the most dangerous viruses the world has ever seen.

1. Ebola Virus 

Its melodic moniker may roll off the tongue, but if you contract the virus, that's not the only thing that will roll out of your body: you will probably have a disturbing amount of blood coming out of your gums, for instance. Four of the five known Ebola viral strains cause Ebola virus disease (EVD), which has killed thousands of people in sub-Saharan African nations since its discovery in 1976.

The deadly virus is named after the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where it was first reported, and is classified as a CDC Biosafety Level 4, a.k.a. BSL-4, making it one of the most dangerous pathogens on the planet. It is thought to spread through contact with bodily secretions of infected people. Depending on the virus strain, EVD has an average mortality rate of 50 percent, with a rapid onset of symptoms that start with a headache and sore throat and progress to major internal and external bleeding and multiple organ failure. There’s no known cure, and the most recent cases were reported this year in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

2. Marburg Virus

In 1967, a group of lab workers in Marburg and Frankfurt, Germany, and in Belgrade, Serbia, contracted a new type of hemorrhagic fever from some virus-carrying African green monkeys that had been imported for research and development of polio vaccines. The Marburg virus is also BSL-4, and Marburg hemorrhagic fever has a 23 to 90 percent fatality rate. Spread through close human-to-human contact, symptoms start with a headache, fever, and a rash on the torso, and progress to multiple organ failure and massive internal bleeding. There is no cure, and the latest cases were reported in Uganda in 2014. An American tourist who had explored a Ugandan cave full of fruit bats known to be reservoirs of the virus contracted it and survived in 2008.

3. Hantavirus

Deer mouse
James Maughn, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There are many strains of hantavirus floating around (yep, it’s airborne). Different strains, carried by different rodent species, are known to cause different types of illnesses in humans, most notably hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome (HFRS)—discovered during the Korean War—and hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS), which emerged with a 1993 outbreak in the southwestern United States. Severe HFRS causes acute kidney failure, while HPS gets you by filling your lungs with fluid (a.k.a. pulmonary edema). HFRS has a mortality rate of 1 to 15 percent, while HPS’s is 38 percent. The U.S. saw its most recent outbreak of hantavirus, of the HPS variety, at Yosemite National Park in late 2012.

4. Lassa Virus

This BSL-4 virus gives us yet another reason to avoid rodents. Lassa is carried by a species of rat in West Africa called Mastomys natalensis. It’s airborne, at least when you’re hanging around the rat's fecal matter. Humans, however, can only spread it through direct contact with bodily secretions. Lassa fever, which has a mortality rate of 1 percent (among hospitalized patients the rate is from 15 to 50 percent), causes about 5000 deaths a year in West Africa, particularly in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and deafness is its most common lasting symptom. It starts with a fever and some retrosternal (behind the chest) pain and can progress to facial swelling, encephalitis, mucosal bleeding, and deafness. Fortunately, researchers and medical professionals have found some success in treating early-stage Lassa fever with an antiviral drug.

5. Rabies Virus

Rabies has a long and storied history dating back to 2300 BCE in records of Babylonians who went mad and died after being bitten by dogs. While this virus itself is a beast, the sickness it causes is now is wholly preventable if treated immediately with a series of vaccinations (sometimes delivered with a terrifyingly huge needle in the abdomen). We have vaccine inventor Louis Pasteur to thank for that.

Exposure to rabies these days, while rare in the U.S., still occurs as it did thousands of years ago—through bites from infected animals. If left untreated after exposure, the virus attacks the central nervous system and death usually results. The symptoms of an advanced infection include delirium, hallucinations, raging, and violent behavior in some cases, which some have argued makes rabies eerily similar to zombification. If rabies ever became airborne, we might actually have to prepare for that zombie apocalypse after all.

6. Smallpox-Causing Variola Virus

The virus that causes smallpox wiped out hundreds of millions of people worldwide over thousands of years. We can’t even blame it on animals either, as the virus is only carried by and contagious for humans. There are several different types of smallpox disease that result from an infection, ranging from mild to fatal, but it is generally marked by a fever, rash, and blistering, oozing pustules that develop on the skin. Fortunately, smallpox was declared eradicated in 1979, as the result of successful worldwide implementation of a vaccine.

7. Dengue Virus

The leading cause of death in the tropics and subtropics is the infection brought on by the dengue virus, which causes a high fever, severe headache, and, in the worst cases, hemorrhaging. The good news is that it's treatable and not contagious. The bad news is there's no vaccine, and you can get it easily from the bite of an infected mosquito—which puts about 3 billion people at risk. The CDC estimates that there are over 400 million cases of dengue infection and that 100 million people suffer symptoms each year. It's a great marketing tool for bug spray.

8. Influenza Virus

No virus can claim credit for more worldwide pandemics and outbreaks than influenza. The Spanish flu in 1918 is generally considered to be one of the worst pandemics in human history, infecting 20 to 40 percent of the world's population and killing 50 million in the span of just two years. The H1N1 swine flu was its most recent newsmaker, when a 2009 pandemic may have caused between 100,000 and 400,000 deaths worldwide in its first year.

Effective influenza vaccines exist, and most people easily survive infections. But the highly infectious respiratory illness is cunning—the virus is constantly mutating and creating new strains. Thousands of strains exist at any given time, many of them harmless, and vaccines available in the U.S. cover only about 40 percent of the strains each year.

10 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine
Letsfit/Amazon

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

Buy it: Amazon

3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains
Eclipse/Amazon

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

Buy it: Amazon

4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock
JALL/Amazon

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

Buy it: Amazon

5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light
Philips/Amazon

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

Buy it: SlumberCloud

7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket
Baloo/Amazon

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

Buy it: Amazon 

10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band
Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

Buy it: Amazon

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Seniors in a North Carolina Assisted Living Facility Are Looking for Pen Pals

Seniors in nursing homes are hoping to develop new friendships with pen pals.
Seniors in nursing homes are hoping to develop new friendships with pen pals.
MichaelShivers/iStock via Getty Images

Although coronavirus still holds many mysteries for the researchers working to understand it, one thing is certain: Older populations, particularly those in group living facilities, are at high risk of serious complications. Assisted living facilities around the country have largely shied away from allowing visitors, which means residents have little contact with anyone beyond staff.

Victorian Senior Care in North Carolina is looking to change that the old-fashioned way. They’re soliciting pen pals for their residents.

The facility, which has several locations throughout the state, has set up a program for residents looking to correspond with someone. Each person has a photo profile listing their name and interests. Enjoy video games? Then you might like exchanging letters with Robert at The Living Center of Concord. Know about farming and heavy farm equipment? Mr. Tom at The Village of Kingston is your man. Don’t mind an old rascal? Check out Leon at Montgomery Village, who likes “shag dancing” and “loves girls.”

You can find dozens more seniors who have a lot of life experience to share on the Victorian Care Center’s pen pal page. The program is already a success, with over 15,000 letters received to date. One location is even at letter capacity, as all the seniors looking for a new friend at their Phoenix Assisted Care location have a full dance card.

Other care facilities throughout the country are also hoping to match residents with pen pals. Ridgecrest Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center in Forney, Texas, has resident profiles on their Facebook page:

None of these facilities are offering email addresses, which means you’ll have to correspond like pen pals did for centuries—with pen and paper.

[h/t Victorian Senior Care]