Saturday, August 2, 2014

Ebola Won't Kill Us All, But Something Else Might

Red Cross workers carry the body of an Ebola victim in Guinea.  

Since September 11, 2001, Americans have had to adjust to an unsettling truth: as the world becomes smaller and easier to traverse, it also becomes more dangerous and difficult to control. There are simply not enough fingers to put in all the dikes. So we do our best: At airport security, we take off our shoes and dutifully toss water bottles into the trash. On buses and in the subway, we are often reminded, sensibly enough, that if we see something we should say something.

But as the world’s worst Ebola epidemic yet spreads through western Africa, it is important to remember that we won’t always see something. “The single biggest threat to man’s continued dominance on this planet is the virus,” the Nobel Prize-winning biologist Joshua Lederberg once wrote. Few epidemiologists would disagree. There is no bomb, no poison, no plan of attack with the potential to do as much damage.

It doesn’t take much effort to see that. Smallpox killed up to half a billion people in the twentieth century alone, before its eradication, in the nineteen-seventies. (That’s why it was so terrifying to learn, last month, that vials full of smallpox, alive and forgotten, had been lying for decades in the refrigerators of a former N.I.H. laboratory.) The global public-health system needs to become far more vigilant in detecting new viruses before they spread. That will require patience, time, and money—an unlikely combination at best.

On Thursday morning, the President of Sierra Leone cancelled a planned visit to the United States, declared a national health emergency, and ordered the Army to quarantine people in the worst-affected areas. The Liberian government has shuttered the country’s schools and placed most public employees on a thirty-day leave. The Peace Corps this week pulled three hundred and forty volunteers out of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone.

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