Spillover

On Friday, the World Health Organization declared the Ebola outbreak in West Africa to be an international public health emergency that requires an extraordinary response to stop its spread.” The Boston Globe reports that experts believe they’ve identified the first victim in this particular epidemic:

Patient zero in the Ebola outbreak, researchers suspect, was a 2-year-old boy who died Dec. 6, just a few days after falling ill in a village in Guéckédou, in southeastern Guinea. Bordering Sierra Leone and Liberia, Guéckédou is at the intersection of three nations, where the disease found an easy entry point to the region.

A week later, it killed the boy’s mother, then his 3-year-old sister, then his grandmother. All had fever, vomiting, and diarrhea, but no one knew what had sickened them.

Two mourners at the grandmother’s funeral took the virus home to their village. A health worker carried it to still another, where he died, as did his doctor. They both infected relatives from other towns. By the time Ebola was recognized, in March, dozens of people had died in eight Guinean communities, and suspected cases were popping up in Liberia and Sierra Leone — three of the world’s poorest countries, recovering from years of political dysfunction and civil war…
Health experts have grown increasingly confident in recent years that they can control Ebola, Frieden said, based on success in places like Uganda.

But those successes hinged on huge education campaigns to teach people about the disease and persuade them to go to treatment centers. Much work went into getting people to change funeral practices that involve touching corpses, which are highly infectious.

But in West Africa, Ebola was unknown. In some areas, frightened and angry people have attacked health workers and even accused them of bringing in disease.

“Early on in the outbreak, we had at least 26 villages or little towns that would not cooperate with responders in terms of letting people into the village, even,” said Gregory Hartl, a spokesman for the World Health Organization.

The outbreak has occurred in three waves: The first two were relatively small, and the third, starting about a month ago, was much larger, Hartl said. “That third wave was a clarion call,” he said.

For contrast purposes, the NY Daily News has an “exclusive interview” (including video) with the “27-year-old Brooklyn grad student” who fortunately did not bring the Ebola virus to NYC. And Carolyn Bankoff at NYMag has a piece on “How West African News Outlets Are Covering the Ebola Outbreak“.

I would also like to take this opportunity to recommend David Quammen’s 2012 book SPILLOVER: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic:

… Make no mistake, they are connected, these disease outbreaks coming one after another. And they are not simply happening to us; they represent the unintended results of things we are doing. They reflect the convergence of two forms of crisis on our planet. The first crisis is ecological, the second is medical. As the two intersect, their joint consequences appear as a pattern of weird & terrible new diseases, emerging from unexpeced sources and raising deep concern, deep foreboding, among the scientists who study them. How do such diseases leap from nonhuman animals into people, and why do they seem to be leaping more frequently in recent years? To put the matter in its starkest form: Human-caused ecological pressures and disruptions are bringing animal pathogens ever more into contact with human populations, while human technology and behavior are spreading those pathogens ever more widely and quickly…

(Page 39, paperback edition)

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58 replies
  1. 1
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    This is a paraphrase, but a little while ago I saw on FB something like this.

    Scientific community: Don’t freak out over Ebola.
    Everyone: PANIC!!

    Scientific community: We are all fucked because climate change.
    Everyone: LOL, pass the coal.

  2. 2
    ArchTeryx says:

    Being an RNA virologist that’s currently in his second year of unemployment, on food stamps and on Medicaid, the whole Ebola panic is quite darkly humorous to me. People run around like chickens with their heads cut off, but they’ll go to the polls and keep right on electing the politicians (mostly Republican) that slash and burn science funding every chance they get.

    It’s the blackest of humor, but I’ll joke that the best possible thing that could happen to my life is humanity to get infected with a viral plague that kills 20% of the population. If I survived the plague (4 in 5 chance) and the short term societal breakdown, I’d never again want for a job or funding!

  3. 3
    mclaren says:

    To stop its spread…in Africa.

    No worries for the developed world. Big worries if you live in Africa.

    Once again, the world’s poorest people are fucked, stuck, ‘n outa luck. If there is a God, She must really hate poor brown people.

  4. 4
    mclaren says:

    @ArchTeryx:

    It’s the blackest of humor, but I’ll joke that the best possible thing that could happen to my life is humanity to get infected with a viral plague that kills 20% of the population. If I survived the plague (4 in 5 chance) and the short term societal breakdown, I’d never again want for a job or funding!

    Be careful what you wish for. Some studies have shown MRSA is becoming airborne.

    “Significance of Airborne Transmission of Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus in an Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery Unit” by Teruo Shiomori, MD, PhD; Hiroshi Miyamoto, MD, PhD; Kazumi Makishima, MD, PhD Arch Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2001;127:644-648

  5. 5
    Bill Arnold says:

    You all have seen the recent Onion piece Experts: Ebola Vaccine At Least 50 White People Away?

  6. 6
    PeakVT says:

    Not to make light of what is happening in Africa, but doesn’t MRSA cause more deaths annually by a factor of 10? Of course, MRSA is not a shiny new object, but more of an old moldy chew toy to our ADD media. So, wevs, I guess.

  7. 7
    ArchTeryx says:

    @mclaren: MSRA is a bacterial disease, not a viral disease, and it is a beast of a very different color. Though quite a few bacteria technically count as “airborne” they don’t spread at quite the rate as viruses do, unless you count anthrax spores.

    MSRA is a big worry, but not the sort of disease that produces global pandemics. MSRA’s potential disaster is reducing hospitals right back to the way they were in the early 1900s, before antibiotics became widely available. All those awesome surgical procedures? Ooops, you just got an antibiotic resistant disease as a part of it. Sucks to be you!

  8. 8
    mclaren says:

    @ArchTeryx:

    Yes, I know MRSA is bacterial and not viral, but it’s a big health issure withal.

    Plus, we’re potentially only a few mutations away from another Spanish Flu. And with modern air travel, it could spread worldwide to ten times as much of the population as got it after WW I. A lot of virologists say another Spanish Flu-style pandemic isn’t a matter of whether, only when.

  9. 9
    ArchTeryx says:

    @mclaren: And I’m one of them. You want a truly chilling look at what a modern global pandemic would look like, go watch the movie Contagion.

    It’s chilling for two reasons: a) it is extremely realistic in its depictions of the virus, its spread, and what it would do to society in general, and b) it is an very optimistic view of how a global pandemic would play out.

  10. 10
    srv says:

    Remember, Twelve Monkeys taught we’re just one religious zealot away from John and Brad sharing an insane asylum.

  11. 11
  12. 12
    Brother Shotgun of Sweet Reason says:

    @ArchTeryx:

    If I survived the plague (4 in 5 chance) and the short term societal breakdown, I’d never again want for a job or funding!

    The corollary in my line of work (water resources engineering) is the Hydroillogic Cycle:

    Apathy
    Flood
    Panic
    Funding

    Apathy …

  13. 13
    Mike in NC says:

    Since it’s August, and there haven’t been any shark attacks or missing pretty blondes, wait for the corporate media to whip 25 million American idiots into a frenzy over the phony Ebola Crisis.

  14. 14
    Jamie says:

    Malthus was not wrong

  15. 15
    Jamie says:

    MRSA is a marker for the spread of antibiotic resistance, which is going to continue to be very big problem

  16. 16
    ArchTeryx says:

    @Brother Shotgun of Sweet Reason: That’s scientific research in general, though it follows longer cycles.

    It peaked around the 1940s-1960s during the Red Scare and the Apollo program (which was a boon to all kinds of scientific funding). Decay started creeping in in the 1970s, then Reagan slashed and burned funding in the 1980s and it never recovered. The Republican House of 2010 and the subsequent abomination known as the Sequester was just the last and mightiest blow to bioscience.

    The trouble with waiting for a plague is, the societal breakdown that a 20%-lethal pandemic would bring might reach unrecoverable levels. Think cities being nuked, complete breakdown of utilities and supply lines, etc. Being sent back to the Bronze Age is not at all outside the realm of possibility.

  17. 17
  18. 18
    GregB says:

    On the bright side.

    I am pretty sure the global nuclear war will kill the Ebola virus dead in its tracks.

  19. 19
    🚸 Martin says:

    @ArchTeryx: Well… up to 5% of the global population died in 1918 and that didn’t spur any kind of widespread societal breakdown, even coinciding with WWI.

  20. 20
    ArchTeryx says:

    @Martin: Our infrastructure wasn’t as vulnerable then as now (much more primitive, which actually was a help), we didn’t have nukes, “just in time” supply chains didn’t exist, and 5% lethality is low enough to keep the lights on, at least.

    Even with all that, the potential for unrecoverable society breakdown is just that – a potential. Lots of things could happen during a pandemic that could tip the scales to either “recoverable disaster” or “total societal breakdown,” and even the disaster planners don’t know what all of the factors are.

  21. 21
    divF says:

    @ArchTeryx:

    The trouble with waiting for a plague is, the societal breakdown that a 20%-lethal pandemic would bring might reach unrecoverable levels. Think cities being nuked, complete breakdown of utilities and supply lines, etc. Being sent back to the Bronze Age is not at all outside the realm of possibility.

    ETA: Your response to Martin applies equally well to my comment.

    A pandemic may kill off a substantial fraction of the population, but it leaves resources and infrastructure intact. I don’t know what happened after the spanish influenza, but the main impact in Europe of the 14th century black plague was to generate a labor shortage and increase the bargaining power of workers, particularly agricultural workers. It only caused a blip in the 100 Years’ war between England and France.

  22. 22
    amk says:

    freaking out over non-existent existential threats (nsa, nsa, nsa/black helos/diseased anchor babies/kommunists/wmds/nukular war/muslins/blahs etc etc) is the fun part of being murkan.

    eta: waiting in line/

  23. 23
    ArchTeryx says:

    @divF: It doesn’t necessarily leave infrastructure intact at all. People do very dumb things when they panic; at the least, roads get torn up, cities turn into armed camps, supply lines break down, maintenance ceases altogether, which in our digital age could lead to massive information loss. Paradoxically, the more advanced and “smart” the infrastructure, the more likely you are to suffer massive degradation during pandemic-type events.

    In worst case scenarios, we get nuclear exchanges, or even countries mass-nuking themselves just to try and stop the spread. That sort of thing is what might cause an unrecoverable condition.

  24. 24
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @ArchTeryx:

    It peaked around the 1940s-1960s during the Red Scare and the Apollo program (which was a boon to all kinds of scientific funding).

    One of the great fruits of the totally wasteful and spendthrift statist Apollo program is the devices we’re using, right now, to bemoan wasteful and spendthrift statist programs that are how eggheads make a living, since they can’t do anything useful, like roll coal or establish Galt’s Gulch.

  25. 25
    GregB says:

    Well, it is August.

    It looks like some violence has broken out in St. Louis over that police shooting of a young black man.

    There is also a report of 500 Yazidi’s slain in Iraq as well as reports of some sort of military coup or counter coup d’etat in Iraq.

  26. 26
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @GregB: I have a sneaky suspicion that the violence in Ferguson can be traced back to a heavy police presence. Need to put the darkies in their place, you know.

  27. 27
    Suffern ACE says:

    @GregB: ummm. I don’t think taking it out on the qwik trip is the way the crowd wants to go.

  28. 28
    Sophist says:

    Paradoxically, the more advanced and “smart” the infrastructure, the more likely you are to suffer massive degradation during pandemic-type events.

    The more moving parts something has, the easier it is to break.

  29. 29
    lamh36 says:

    @GregB: and now it will make the news and blogs and catch more mainstream (i.e white folks) attention yet the protest that have been going on since yesterday was/will be largely ignored.

    But I’m not surprised.

    I’m going to bed now cause I’m just getting more and more pissed about it.

    ugh–> CNN (@CNN)
    8/10/14, 11:28 PM
    Fatal police shooting in Missouri sparks protests, looting. cnn.it/1sEqUu9

    Download the official Twitter app here

    Sent from my iPad

  30. 30
    mclaren says:

    @ArchTeryx:

    To amplify on what ArchTeryx mentions about infrastructure, a lot of today’s infrastructure is so-called “smart” infrastructure — lots of computer-controlled valves, computer-operated pressure pipelines, and so on. Smart infrastructure proves oh so efficient…but it requires a lot of maintenance.

    Without maintenance and without properly functioning networked digital systems to control ’em, lots of today’s infrastructure components will simply break. How does this happen? Pressure in pipes rises without proper control, rupturing the pipelines; electric grids without proper load-switching dump their loads and burn out crucial components…water filtration system sans proper administration of the filtration system fill up with fatal algae, requiring such wholesale cleaning that it amounts to rebuilding the system.

    We have built ourselves a wonderfully complex and efficient society, but the downside is that if human experts and the systems they administration go down across the board, the systems supporting that society will break in potentially irreparable ways.

    By contrast, the infrastructure of 1918 amounted to electric lighting in some areas (not most), running water and flush toilets in some areas (not most). Read Hemingway writing in the 1920s. In Paris, trucks were still offloading sewage from tanks in apartment buildings because there still wasn’t universal sewer or water infrastructure in one of the biggest and most sophisticated cities in the world.

  31. 31
    GregB says:

    @lamh36:

    It’s terrible news. The kid was ready to head off to college.

    I really have no faith in the ability of almost any law enforcement agency to do a just and fair internal review.

  32. 32
    mclaren says:

    @GregB:

    Especially when police think it’s fun to wear T-shirts reading WE GET UP EARLY TO BEAT THE CROWD.

  33. 33
    burnspbesq says:

    @mclaren:

    Some studies have shown

    Umm, that’s one study. Got more? And in the absence of a link, why shouldn’t I assume you’re just MSU?

  34. 34
    burnspbesq says:

    @GregB:

    I really have no faith in the ability of almost any law enforcement agency to do a just and fair internal review.

    And if DOJ exonerates the cop, then what?

  35. 35
    amk says:

    @mclaren:

    Pressure in pipes rises without proper control, rupturing the pipelines; electric grids without proper load-switching dump their loads and burn out crucial components

    Ummm, no. There are many redundancies built into safety systems, including manual takeover and overrides.

    Shit happens? Sure. But it is not the norm. If it were, you would be seeing multiple industrial disasters everyday.

  36. 36
    Temporarily Max McGee (soon enough to be Andy K again) says:

    @mclaren:

    Too general. Think transportation. A virus can move halfway around the globe in a day. Good goddmmed thing there wasn’t jet travel- especially widespread jet travel- in 1918-19.

  37. 37
    Anoniminous says:

    @burnspbesq:

    Pneumonia Caused by Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus

    A recent increase in staphylococcal infections caused by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), combined with frequent, prolonged ventilatory support of an aging, often chronically ill population, has resulted in a large increase in cases of MRSA pneumonia in the health care setting. In addition, community acquired MRSA pneumonia has become more prevalent.

    [Cite: Clin Infect Dis. (2008) 46 (Supplement 5): S378-S385. doi: 10.1086/533594]

    AFAIK, all cases of community acquired MRSA pneumonia were patients whose immune system was compromised by influenza. IOW, first they got the flu then MRSA pneumonia. We’re only talking ten, or so, cases per flu-season yet the concurrence of Staphylococcus aureus (SA) and the influenza virus is troubling. Bacteria are notorious for picking up and incorporating stray bits of DNA from other organisms in their environment. We really do not want to see SA gain the influenza virus’ ability to propagate through a community.

  38. 38
    burnspbesq says:

    @GregB:

    FWIW, your speculation about what might have happened and mine are probably not too far apart. In my admittedly limited experience, young men who are about to start college and have an optimistic view of the future tend not to go out of their way to commit suicide-by-cop. There almost certainly was provocation for the initial confrontation, and one thing led pretty inexorably to another.

    The problem is that before you ask a jury to convict a white cop of premeditated murder of an African-American teenage man, you’d better have your case buttoned up well beyond beyond-a-reasonable-doubt, and based on the reporting to date, I don’t see how that’s going to be possible.

  39. 39
    NotMax says:

    MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) also has a significant death rate among those infected (deaths occur in over 40% of cases in Saudi Arabia), but receives little notice in the press here.

  40. 40
    James E. Powell says:

    @lamh36:

    yet the protest that have been going on since yesterday was/will be largely ignored.

    Not at all – there are stories of New Black Panthers – and look! they’re looting a liquor store!

    Oh yeah, gonna be plenty of coverage of that.

  41. 41
    J R in WV says:

    We had neighbors over yesterday evening Saturday) for dinner Both scientists. Short bit of conversation about dangerous news, I mentioned fearing the Ebola in Darkest Africa might take off. Both environmental biologists thought nearly impossible. Hoping they were correct, fearing they were not.

    Worst news in a long time is the sudden jump in newly disgnosed cases. Next worst news is the continuing ignorance about the germ theory of disease in a huge population. Viruses make it hard to believe in the germ theory, you can’t see them even with a good microscope. It took a long time to convince people viruses existed in the scientific community.

    I’m 63, had a good life, no kids… still not anxious to die soon! We were planning another trip overseas, after we visited Spain/France last fall, toured the ancient cave paintings and associated archaeology sites. The degree of sophistication of the art is amazing, speaking as a person who is appreciative of art and pretty well self-educated about it.

    Not now planning to travel much very soon, except to build up reserves of stuff that would enable long term residency on the farm in a remote hollow.

    Way too scary right now.

  42. 42
    Chris T. says:

    @J R in WV: Ebola isn’t good, but it’s not nearly as bad as (say) polio or measles. Or some of the new drug-resistant bacterial strains, such as the new TB, and MRSA (as mentioned by many above).

  43. 43
    Gindy51 says:

    @GregB: Only if it kills every fruit bat alive.

  44. 44
    Another Holocene Human (now with new computer) says:

    @ArchTeryx:

    It’s the blackest of humor, but I’ll joke that the best possible thing that could happen to my life is humanity to get infected with a viral plague that kills 20% of the population. If I survived the plague (4 in 5 chance) and the short term societal breakdown, I’d never again want for a job or funding!

    Look out, it could herald the inauguration of the theocracy and you’d either be unemployed with your head on a pike or working for the dark side as a convert-priest!

  45. 45
    Another Holocene Human (now with new computer) says:

    @Chris T.: Don’t talk about the TB epidemic we had raging in Northeast Florida. Rick Scott would have a sad. Fortunately, I don’t think it was a drug resistant kind.

  46. 46
    Another Holocene Human (now with new computer) says:

    @lamh36: Do you lurk on LittleGreenFootballs? They’ve been all over the protest on the front page.

  47. 47
    Keith G says:

    @J R in WV: With all respects, if you are confronted by an untimely end it will most likely be due to a careless driver who offs you on your way to get groceries, a slip and fall at home, or your own body failing to function as advertised.

    Listen to your scientific friends and relax. Stress is deadly.

  48. 48
    Pogonip says:

    @ArchTeryx: Hi ArchTeryx, I have a question, if Ebola spreads by contact with infected fluids, what’s your best guess as to how people who merely attended the funer caught it?

  49. 49
    Pogonip says:

    @Pogonip: Er, funerAL, sorry.

    I read Spillover. Good book.

  50. 50

    @Pogonip:
    The quote in the OP answers that. Funeral practices in the region involve physical contact with the body by the mourners.

    Much work went into getting people to change funeral practices that involve touching corpses, which are highly infectious.

  51. 51
    Pogonip says:

    Oops, never mind, just saw a story about how local funerals involve mourners touching the deceased, which may explain it.

    Have you applied to DOD? They will hire anyone who has college, and as a scientist you certainly qualify. They won’t hire you to study viruses–I think that’s all contracted out–but you’d shuffle papers in a nice clean office, make good money, and probably start out as the boss.

  52. 52
    Matt McIrvin says:

    @Villago Delenda Est: My impression is that the importance of the space program to developments in microelectronics has been greatly exaggerated. Spending on science and technology usually stimulates some productive activity, but in general, take long lists of space spinoffs with a grain of salt.

  53. 53
    C.V. Danes says:

    @amk:

    freaking out over non-existent existential threats (nsa, nsa, nsa/black helos/diseased anchor babies/kommunists/wmds/nukular war/muslins/blahs etc etc) is the fun part of being murkan.

    The problem with Ebola is that the only know treatments are experimental and in short supply. So your non-existent existential threat could become existent very quickly if this keeps spreading.

  54. 54
    Bitter and Deluded Lurker says:

    @C.V. Danes: What you’re missing is that you need to be in contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids. It’s horrific, yes, but it doesn’t spread that easily.

  55. 55
    Davis X. Machina says:

    @Temporarily Max McGee (soon enough to be Andy K again): Throw in time for incubation, latency and the speed of steamship travel and even then, things and people moved plenty fast enough. The first outbreak most lethal strain of the 1918-1920 pandemic was reported simultaneously from Boston, France, and Sierra Leone.

  56. 56
    Enhanced Voting Techniques says:

    @ArchTeryx: The 19th century was full of world wide pandemics with mass death – typhus, typhoid, yellow fever, break bone fever, various flues and so on. please list the number of times people reacted the way you are listing, If you find the number is none then perhaps consider that you’ve been victimized by media scaremorngering.

    Fun fact, vastly more soldiers died due to infections disease from living in unsanitary conditions during the American Civil War than from combat wounds.

  57. 57
    C.V. Danes says:

    @Bitter and Deluded Lurker: Just sayin’ that this is a slow-moving catastrophe that is becoming increasing desperate to those involved. If the WHO can succeed in getting a lid on it before it–albeit slowly–reaches critical mass, then it will pass. If not, then we’re screwed. It may be transmitted slowly, but there is no cure either. It will either keep getting worse until it becomes pandemic, or it will eventually burn itself out.

    Also, its not like our free market pharmaceutical companies are in a rush to create a treatment anyway, because where’s the payback in saving a few thousand Africans? They won’t get on board until the whites start dropping, and by then it will be too late.

  58. 58
    Someguy says:

    I see. Double the funding, double the beneficial scientific results. Because everything will be as cheap and easy and revolutionary as inventing pennicillan.

    Reminds me of some IT projects I’ve worked on. To finish them faster, just throw 2x the money and 2x the people at them. Then you finish in half the time. Right? Just like you can build a house twice as fast by having the guys doing sheetrock the same day as the guys doing electric and plumbing…

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