If you’re a bio-nerd like me, you’ve known about Ebola for a very long time. You knew it was trouble from the get-go and wondered how it would unfold should it get widespread.
Well, now we know.
But as things have unfolded, I see three things that I feel expose our techno-optimism for what it is: talk.
A few years ago, there were serious concerns about swine and avian flus going nuts on the scale of the 1918 man vs virus massacre. Synthetic biology was having a hey-day as, my anti-hero, Craig Venter, and his team, created life forms and turned genes into Legos.
One of the promises of synthetic biology was the rapid production of vaccines. Venter joined forces with vaccine juggernaut, Novartis, to accelerate the production of new vaccines. The hope was that, as diseases emerged, we could build vaccines in a week to save us from pandemics. And, since this was the rosy future, we would email the code anywhere, to bioreplicators, to get the vaccine where it needed to be.
OK. So we’re months into the whole Ebola epidemic (or at least, months since everyone outside of Africa started freaking out about it). In the same vein as “It’s the future, where’s my jet pack?”, I say: “It’s the synthetic biology future, where’s my personalized vaccine?” I’ll be kinder: “Where’s the instant Ebola vaccine?”
Yup. We still have a way to go. We’ll have to pass on this epidemic, and do it the old skool way.
Basic(s of) public health
Thankfully, folks my age and younger don’t have first hand knowledge of the viral scourges of yesteryear (which, I feel, were really just before I was born in the 60s). But viruses have a way to remind us that we’re slacking on basic vaccination: measles and whooping cough, for example, are making a come-back, once more. This should not be happening in 2014.
Also, we’d like to think that we’re more aware of viral infections: awareness in day care, awareness at home and in the streets, and awareness in the hospital. Heck, at a minimum, you’d think that hospitals don’t need to have some gruesome virus waved in front of their face to initiate proper infectious disease protocols. You’d think such habits were ingrained anyway, since hospitals are trying to control all sorts of hospital acquired bacterial infections (practically the only bacterial infections that still kill).
For example, swine and avian flu were doing a brisk business in the previous decade, and there was a concerted public health effort to nip the seasonal swells in the bud. Indeed, I remember working at Children’s Boston where they restricted access to patients, made all employees get vaccinated, installed hand sanitizers everywhere, and upped awareness of symptoms and potential outcomes.
The annoying thing is that some people complained after that there was no outbreak. Of course, stupid, because we took precautions and instituted good infectious disease protocols.
So, what the heck happened with Ebola here in the US? My understanding is that part of the reason it’s on a rampage in Africa is precisely due to poor public health infrastructure (in the hospitals) and understanding (with the public).
I will have to think the best, that Texas Presbyterian has had top notch infectious disease protocols in place and that the two nurses who were infected were due to the amazing ability of the virus to circumvent such protections and protocol.
I have to.
But then why do I keep hearing stories of staff going on plane and boat trips?
True, it shouldn’t be an issue if there were good protocols in place and the infection was contained. But if one patient caused two more infections in caregivers, might all staff members be a bit concerned?
Which leads me to the third case where Ebola makes us look silly.
The concern has spread to panic. A Maine teacher who visited Dallas was (sort-of) quarantined and banned from going back to her school. A man in the UK pulled his daughter out of school because she wasn’t allowed to wear a face mask. And now, the uninformed are calling for a travel ban.
For the past 10+ years, the US has been able to maintain a constant list of fears rotating through everyone’s minds. And the government has been well oiled to use all these fears to pump money into think tanks and contractors to develop systems to counter the sum of all our fears.
Bio-terrorism is one of these fears. I can’t help to think of the billions poured into research and plans to prepare for a bio-terrorism event. For example, what if someone were to infect someone with Ebola?
So where is all this bio-terrorism preparation in these Ebola days? From what I can tell, while the CDC has been great, I don’t see any mobilization on the part of the bio-terrorism folks. OK, so this is not a bio-terrorist attack, but, really, all the protocols, actions, and preparation should be as applicable to this Ebola event as if it were from some malicious element. The virus really doesn’t care who set it off.
But I can be OK with that.
The part though that I can say all the bio-terrorism effort has not helped is in educating the public what to do. Which ties back to the panic. Many folks have no idea how Ebola spreads.
And Ebola might be the best thing to happen to all the politicians and their asinine campaigns during these mid-term elections. Folks are so worried about Ebola (or at least it seems from the news) that no one will turn out to vote – partly because they usually don’t care, but now because there’s a menace out there.
As this great Forbes article on travel ban modeling says:
Calls for a travel ban illustrate that there’s yet another battle to be won over Ebola: explaining how the disease spreads between populations.
The humble virus this way comes
We think we’re so smart we can whip up vaccines and send them over the internet to save the masses. We think we’re the acme of our civilization with clean streets, advanced medicine, and disease-free living. We think we’ve thought of every scenario that could haunt our nightmares and have spent billions in materials and minds to prepare us.
And then seven genes, encoded in RNA, wrapped in a protein package of less than a micron, decides to take advantage of humans and go about its business of replicating, to remind us: eh, things aren’t as advanced as we think they are.
Life is still a battle and we need to tone down the techno-optimism and tone up the grunt work to save thousands of lives.
Ebola family photo via Wikimedia