Alison Jacobson is an MSc student doing a project with me (Ed Rybicki) on a plant virus in the Department of Microbiology on UCT's Upper Campus. She is also - much to her surprise - perhaps the best-known or most-read scientist at the University of Cape Town, at least in terms of the perceptions of people who access the World-Wide Web!
It started when in the middle of 1994, she innocently handed in a BSc Honours assignment entitled "Emerging and Re-Emerging Viruses: An Essay". I thought it was a very good, balanced review, and as I had just started up our Departmental home page on the UCT World-Wide Web server and didn't have much to put on it, I asked if I could convert it into a hypertext document and put it into the archive. She agreed, I converted it, and it became one of several items on our page - such as my electronic tutorial "Introduction to Molecular Virology" - which were benignly ignored by the outside world.
A little later that year I got access to the Molecular Virology WWW server at the University of Wisconsin, where Stephan Spencer had kindly agreed to "mirror" the virus tutorial and related information. By that time there had been a growing number of email inquiries to the bionet.virology electronic discussion group about the Ebola virus: media fever and public anxiety about the virus had been growing in the US because of two books that had just been published. The first and most lurid was "The Hot Zone", by Richard Preston, which was an account both of the Ebola haemorrhagic fever epidemics in Zaire and Sudan in 1976, and of the infection and deaths of monkeys in a primate facility in Reston, Virginia, by another airborne strain of Ebola. The second was "The Coming Plague", by Laurie Garrett, which was a much longer, far more scientific account of emerging and re-emerging diseases in general. I announced to the discussion group that the electronic text was available, and a fairly brisk traffic started of people wanting information about Ebola in particular, and viruses in general.
In May 1995 something happened which was to turn the traffic flow into a roaring torrent, and to make instant media stars of some very unlikely people: another outbreak of Ebola fever was reported by the WHO from the town of Kikwit, in Zaire. In what was probably one of the first instances of the Internet being used for such large-scale information dissemination on a human catastrophe, the flood of desperate inquiries in bionet.virology totally overwhelmed all normal traffic. It quickly became apparent that people were genuinely interested and almost completely uninformed, and that there were precious few official information channels. Acordingly, a number of interested parties - myself included - set up WWW information pages on the epidemic, fed by electronic posts to discussion groups such as bionet.virology and ProMED, electronic information servers like the NandO Times and the Electronic Telegraph, and official news releases from the WHO and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta. Another thing that was soon apparent was that there was precious little basic information available on the Ebola viruses, and even less that was available via the Internet - to the extent that the CDC put a pointer on its Ebola page to Alison's essay as perhaps the most comprehensive Internet- accessible source of basic information on the virus. After this, the number of pointers to it multiplied, access demands soared - and reporters started phoning UCT from Philadelphia and San Francisco, asking to speak to Dr Jacobson to ask her whether she had been to Kikwit yet, and what did she think of the current epidemic. The essay was printed from the Web and passed around at the National Institute for Virology in Johannesburg, and has attracted nothing but praise from even people who have worked with Ebola.
Since May, Alison's essay - or the part of it dealing with Ebola - has been read by at least 20 000 people, if server logs at UCT and Wisconsin alone are anything to go by. However, due to its uncontrolled copying throughout the proliferation of Web sites dealing with Ebola, the true number is probably far higher. It is by far the most popular article ever to come out of my laboratory (and probably out of the Department), even though the Ebola media fever (as opposed to the real thing) led to an amazing upsurge in interest in all things virological at our site and the Wisconsin site. It was most heartening to see that both were mentioned in the New Scientist Netropolitan column as the primary information sources on the outbreak. The interest continues, with the Microbiology page (and the Ebola information in particular) still being the most-accessed document files on the UCT WWW server.
The whole phenomenon has been an object exercise in the power of the Web as a tool for the wide dissemination of information: we reached not only professional virologists, but also health-care professionals, and - most importantly - the lay public on a large scale. Dr FA Murphy of the Veterinary Faculty at U California Davis - speaking on emerging diseases at the recent Vth International ICVO Virology Congress in Midrand - used slides of our site and of the David Ornstein site in the US as examples of how archives on the Web and on the Internet run by non-specialist and/or non-medical people could be invaluable means of quickly and widely disseminating important information to a lay public.
And "Dr" Jacobson has been keeping very quiet, hoping against hope that she didn't plagiarise anything, that all her facts were correct, and that her supervisor will never again do anything like this with anything she writes....