Uganda’s Ebola epidemic offers lessons about global conflict and nature

Written by E, m, i, l, y, , – m, t, h, e, s

‘You can’t believe what a real threat Ebola is to the US” said Paul, our volunteer biologist, as we hopped from one to the next, trying the soon-to-be-feared virus. We were in Uganda.

It’s a crisis zone of extreme upheaval and destruction, where the most vulnerable have no choice but to live in slums or pitiable shacks like that built on the banks of the Nile.

The new epidemic is Ebola.

Human beings, nay God?

The whole world is watching. But all we have as a remedy is irony. We’re watching as future pandemics, which you could say are at risk, are conceived on the fringes of Earth, far from the playhouses of Doha and New York. This is an urgent emergency. Our world is in peril.

Paul. The problems of this epidemic are hardly novel. The risk of global pandemics is a constant — it has been around for ages.

“It’s like a snorkle,” Paul said, without irony, “A virus that slides around through the mouth of a chicken, poops it out, then bursts into the body, and causes fever, joint pain, diarrhea, vomiting, all the classic signs and symptoms. It’s only when a disease goes public that scientists can catch a glimpse of it in the person it’s infecting.

“For years after the first outbreak was identified, scientists were looking at how this particular virus was living. About 25 years ago, one of the world’s leading virologists, Jerry Barber, with the University of Washington, tagged off regions of the genetic code of a new virus, and found it had almost exactly the same sequences as the 1918 virus. He showed what happened if you allowed the virus to keep growing in lab animals, and then watched it start infecting people.

“We knew then that there was a new virus going around, and there was a chance of it mutating, mutating. So the vaccine developed was designed with an in-built hope that at some point, it would probably mutate and give us a chance to prevent it.

“That time has come. Several years ago, the virus that used to be a bird flu mutated into an avian flu virus. It infected a human in China and killed 56 out of 49 infected. It’s now run wild in China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Pakistan, Indonesia, Taiwan, Thailand. The big question in medicine is if it mutates, which mutation is going to give it to human beings.

“It’s a mad cycle — first they die in the wild, and the virus multiplies in lab animals. Then we get closer and closer to the point of massive impact, which is when it goes public, when the disease goes into slaughterhouses, zoos, and then people might eat it. The people who did not die, the cullers, the Zoonoses (zoo and wildlife sites) people, will get infected.

“If you multiply it three times, to keep it from multiplying in humans, you open it up to lots of infection. It becomes very pandemic, particularly if we don’t prevent it going into slaughterhouses, zoos and people. From where it started, it could infect 500 million people in Europe and north America, and 5-10 percent of the entire population in the Americas.

“Even if it mutates to be slightly less deadly, it’s going to kill hundreds of thousands, and I could be wrong about that.”

E, m, i, l, y, h, e, s

But, my boss, the Peace Corps’ Phil, said, “it’s not going to be in New York. It won’t be in Dallas, Atlanta, San Francisco. To be honest, only people who get sick at this point are getting it in cities like L.A. and Miami. They get infected in food service or health care or filthy places where no one was trying to limit their movement,” Phil said.

“It’s going to spread most rapidly through the villages and slums in Africa, where there is a total lack of safe water and sanitation — and in many areas where children are playing in the ditches with the drainage pipes that have broken, under rain. Kids get sick because of the infection, and then they get sent home, so that the disease continues to grow. And then more people get sick.

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