Ebola Rising

Illustration of the Ebola virus among red blood cells

Every new artifact of human culture generates a set of effects. The most predictable of these relate directly to the operation or impact of the artifact; for example, the invention of the automobile made the horse and buggy obsolete. Less obvious is its relationship to the creation of suburbs, the modern-day oil industry, fracking technology, global warming and ultimately the fully electric vehicle. An extensive list of the direct and indirect effects of the automobile, however, is not the topic of this column. This column is about Ebola.

At this point you may be wondering why a column about Ebola begins with the example of the automobile, but it is merely a method of illustrating how successive waves of effects are generated over time by artifacts of human culture. Ebola is not an artifact of human culture, strictly speaking, but the threat of a world-wide Ebola epidemic is directly tied to the introduction of the artifact of high-speed, global transportation. Were it not for the rapid movement of people around the world, Ebola would remain a regional disease subject to the epidemiological stages a geographically contained outbreak embodies.

Clearly, for those infected, Ebola is a disaster. Easily transmitted and exhibiting a high mortality rate, if Ebola were to simply run it course within a confined population it would, like the Spanish Flu of 1918, eventually come to an end, albeit tragic. However, the advent of international transportation renders the possibility of a confined population moot; Ebola has already appeared in Europe and the United States and is likely to pop-up in additional places. Western countries with the latest medical protocols are best equipped to cope with an outbreak, but should Ebola move into developing countries like India, Bangladesh or some in Southeast Asia the results would be catastrophic. The Spanish Flu killed 1% of the world’s population, and if Ebola spreads and does the same in today’s numbers it means the death of 70 million people.

It’s unlikely that the promoters of international travel and transportation spent much time worrying about the spread of infectious disease, yet it is a predictable outcome of the effects of such activity. We have not only globalized once regional economies but also human health. Various mosquito-borne diseases previously limited to a specific geography are now spreading rapidly into new habitats and finding hosts with little or no immunity. Ebola represents just one of a number of emerging global health concerns, but our profit-driven medical and pharmaceutical systems cannot keep pace. Everything about our world is speedy except health care solutions and innovation. We can rapidly deploy fighting forces and equipment, but when it comes to human health we are slow, cautious and often unresponsive.

Ebola, which was first discovered and named in Africa in 1976, is a highly infectious virus; even touching the skin of symptomatic Ebola victims can spread the illness, thus the infection of a fully “protected” nurse in Texas is particularly unsettling. A medical system unprepared for Ebola is serious, but the prospect of ordinary citizens unable to cope with this disease is catastrophic. It is the ultimate in anti-social illness, rendering tenderness, physical affection, touch and comfort all but impossible.

Who would have thought that air travel, an artifact of human culture intended to bring us together, would result in spreading a deadly virus that by necessity sets us apart.

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