Saturday, October 25, 2014

Bowling for Ebola

This thoroughly nasty affliction has made a reappearance in Africa with every sign that this time the benefits of modern communications will share the wealth with the whole world. A previous outbreak in central Africa during the 80's served only to point out the nature of the disease and the potential it had as a people killer. Military germ warfare experts were immediately interested. This time, unless they're directed toward disease control, the same sort of experts were among the first deployed to the sites involved. But this time seems to be different.

Although the world seemed as interested this time as it had been last time, the outbreak of disease got well out of control long before it was noticed. Possibly because of recent disturbances and changes to the  social milieu in these places, the 'missionary clinic' system that worked so well to isolate, if not to treat and stop, the last instance, didn't seem to work, or might have been (in the case of west Africa) missing in action. Church groups which in previous times might have formed the first line of defense may have been superceded by NGOs with less 'long-term' perspectives, or, in the 'free market' aspect of things, nothing at all.

What is interesting to me is that it happened again at all. Ebola is rooted in the practice of eating, or acquiring, "bush meat' - animals foraged for food in the African wild. It is thought that an ebola-like illness is endemic in some populations of apes and monkeys used as food by 'primitive' Africans. It strikes me that, if this is a 'new' development twenty years seems long enough a period to educate people about the dangers of the practice and the effects and symptoms of the disease.  When a sore throat and head ache result in somebody bleeding from body orifices and dying, even the most primitive people would notice. It probably wouldn't take overly long for the problem to become known, resulting in the kind of  'quarantine' that 'primitive' people have applied to the contagious for millennia.

Perhaps in these more enlightened times that natural barrier to epidemic has been breached by a misplaced concern for human rights.

We know that the hospital 'protocols' in regard to transmitted infection - being re-learned after the 'panacea epoch' of anti-bacterials, are challenged by viral diseases like Ebola. And if the trained front-line professionals get sick first, who is to replace them?

Prognosticators are describing a 'gets worse, before it gets better' scenario and the head of the World Bank has already started to consider the costs involved should the disease break out in 'advanced societies'.

One thing that seems apparent is that, barring the  planned destruction of disease centers and threatened populations by military force, all the trillions we've wasted lately on bang-bang  and boom-boom pale to insignificant waste in consideration that one fifth that amount might have moved 'primitive' societies well beyond the need to hunt bush meat.

 That the world is as unprepared as it was before is also surprising. Ebola cold be a cutting edge military weapon. But all such weapons must be developed in such a way that the user isn't as affected by them as the target. So since the last outbreak I would imagine that military labs at least would have been working on immunization schedules. Many such virus-based diseases, like polio, have been attenuated by vaccine development. Such vaccines and treatments must have been in the works as some successful ones were available to the first western victims. Survivors might be a source of useful anti-bodies, and in one case those have been used.

One of the interesting asides in this is the news that a vaccine for ebola has been 'shelved' for the past 15 years. Development of that was stopped after  tests indicated it was effective on monkeys. Now it's being 'rushed through development'  to test it on humans, But that will take some time.  In the meantime local doctors are hoping to use blood serum from recovered victims.

Western governmental sources are cautioning against a 'stupid' response to the outbreak. At the same time those sources seem to be thoroughly out of touch with the front line which has bobbled, and now admits 'mishandling' the original out break.  New cases demonstrate a seemingly cavalier attitude to the potential for a mass break-out as exposed people seem free to travel (in the latest instant on a cruise ship) while official sources caution that the 'incubation period' for ebola - thought to be 21days - might be significantly longer. Next they'll be finding that, like AIDS, the disease can be transmitted before the carrier actually feels any  ill effects. That would make airport temperature scans akin to chasing the horse twenty minutes after it has exited the corral.

What's most scary is that, for all our 'knowledge', we seem to know little at all. Or at least to know too little to say ' Ebola is nothing to worry about'.  It might very well be the 'big one' they've been expecting for so long - mishandled, we could make it so.

Perhaps even more concerning is the amount of international inertia about providing resources to Africa and the fact that 'ebola stories' seem to have become 'yesterday's news'  and much less 'emotional' issues for the mainstream media.

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