Share it! Science : What is a Virus Anyway?

What is a Virus Anyway?

     This time of year, in this year especially, there is a lot of buzz and fear over viruses. Ebola  and Enterovirus D68 have been particularly newsworthy due to some tragic losses and some miraculous recoveries. I am not going to write about the politics or statistics of these viruses here, however, I would like to try to answer these questions: What is a virus anyway? How can we educate our children accurately without scaring them?
Eastern Equine Encephalitis Virus
     We can trace our discovery of viruses back to 1898 when it was found that the cause of foot and mouth disease in lifestock was something even smaller than bacteria. Although we did not have a clear indication of what that meant yet, it was the first evidence that illness could be caused by something else. Viruses, although unwanted in many cases, are truly brilliant. Outside of a host they are enclosed in a membrane, protein coat or capsid that encases the DNA and RNA that codes for their particular strain of virus. They depend on a host to reproduce, so once they have traveled through some vector (air, water, bodily fluids) they reach the cells of the host. Once in the host cell the virus inserts its DNA into the cell, which essentially takes over the cell and the virus uses the cell's abilities for itself. The cell begins to produce more of the virus rather than complete its normal tasks. Eventually, the viral material bursts from the cell and continues to find new cells to infect. Viral diseases come in many forms and use many vectors to travel. Ebola is an example of a virus that is not airborne, it travels through contact with bodily fluids. Enterovirus D68 on the other hand is one that is spread through the air when someone sneezes or coughs. There are thousands of viruses ranging from the common cold, to chicken pox, to AIDS. 

     So how do we teach about viruses? In general, I believe that if kids learn about good hygiene, what a virus is, how their body fights disease and how grown-ups are working hard to keep them healthy, then we have done our job. It also doesn't hurt to keep exposure to the news media at a minimum since kids interpret what they hear in many different ways. There are many good resources to teach kids about health and their body. One of my favorites to use with my students is There are many interactives, articles and videos here to help understand their body and health. They also keep up to date with current health issues and write about them in an accurate and age appropriate way, such as this recent article on Ebola.  Another good resource is NSF International's "Scrub Club" website. This site is full of cartoons, games and other fun resources to teach about germs and sanitation. Excellent resources for older students and adults are: The Encyclopedia of Life, The Big Picture Book of Viruses  and Cells Alive! There have also been several interesting blog posts by Travis Good about innovations to help reign in Ebola in a series entitled: "Makers Against Ebola". This is part of a larger design challenge called "Fighting Ebola: A Grand Challenge for Development" by Open IDEO,  which is a community for designers and makers for social good. Sounds like a great prompt for some innovation or engineering projects at school or home!
     How do you teach your kids or students about health and viruses? If you know of a great resource please add it in the comment section! 

Resources for Kids and Adults about Health and Viruses: 

Introduction to Viruses

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