Science

I Went to West Africa and All I Got Was This Lousy Ebola Panic

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The Ebola River runs through the Democratic Republic of the Congo and it was in that region in the mid 70s that a new virus was discovered. Since then, six distinct varieties of the virus have been isolated with Ebola Zaire making the news recently for its rise in western Africa. It belongs to the Hemorrhagic Fever family of viruses which also includes things like marburg, hantavirus, dengue, yellow fever, and tick borne encephalitis.

Ebola has largely become famous for its particularly graphic symptoms which include excess bleeding and vomiting. Extremely important to note is the only way to contract the disease is to come in contact with infected tissue or fluids. There are no recorded cases of airborne transmission to a person. I won’t go into further detail about the virus itself, but for those of you who are curious, I would highly recommend The Hot Zone by Richard Preston. It is in my top ten nonfiction books of all time and does an excellent job of mixing the history of with the science behind the virus.

Here is a graphic of all the Ebola deaths in Africa since the 70s.

Ebola Outbreaks[1
If you prefer your visual aids in bar graph form here is this.

Ebola Deaths By Year

As of the writing of this post there have been 729 deaths in the most recent outbreak which does make it the deadliest ebola outbreak in history. To give that number a little perspective, there are an estimated 564,300 deaths each year from malaria in Africa alone.[2] I’m not trying to downplay the fact that there is clearly an outbreak going on and people are dying in terrible ways, but the panic that surrounds this disease is a contributing factor to its death toll.

The Associated Press has not helped matters in the US. Earlier today they had to correct a headline that originally read, “Plans underway to get American sick with Ebola,” to, “Plans underway to retrieve Americans sick with Ebola.”[3] This was a story about two Americans who are being flown from Africa to Emory hospital in Atlanta for treatment. Donald Trump tweeted, “Stop the EBOLA patients from entering the U.S. Treat them, at the highest level, over there. THE UNITED STATES HAS ENOUGH PROBLEMS!”[4]

Before I address Mr(not Dr) Trump, I want to reiterate that Ebola doesn’t spread that easily. It can’t be spread until someone starts showing symptoms(roughly two weeks after exposure) and even then you need direct contact with infected tissue or fluids. In a world class hospital in the CDC’s backyard there is nothing to worry about in regards to a sudden catastrophic plague in the US.

The question then becomes why is it spreading so much in Africa and why can’t we take Mr. Trump’s advice of just treating everything across the Atlantic. The places where this outbreak is occurring are not near proper medical facilities. People are dying in areas that make northeast Iowa look like an urban center. The hospitals that are there are not very well equipped for dealing with this sort of thing.

One story related in the book The Hot Zone is about an outbreak of Ebola starting in a hospital that was using the same needle with different patients because the facility had an extremely limited supply of needles. That sort of fluid exchange is one method ebola(and plenty of other infections) can spread, and just wouldn’t happen in a better facility. Better funding of the hospital for the purchase of clean needles would have saved lives.

The brave doctors who are venturing into the affected communities are also meeting resistance from the local population. They are finding roads blocked with cut down trees and villages defended with machetes. Doctors without Borders says that at least a dozen villages in the country of Guinea likely harbor the disease but are inaccessible due to safety concerns. Doctors trained in western medicine are being accused of spreading the disease.[5] In the villagers’ defense, I can certainly understand the region having a strong mistrust of outsiders coming in saying, “We’re here to help,” but when you mix a communicable disease with a reliance on witch doctors the result is going to be new cases and mounting deaths.

It is true that Ebola has no cure(although there is promising vaccine work in primates) and the strain currently at work has a fatality rate of 60%-80%. It is a disease that deserves to be taken seriously and sadly it isn’t largely because of who it affects. There is little to no incentive for a private company to work towards a cure because there’s no money to be made in vaccinating those who make less than a dollar per day. The governments of the affected nations are often too poor, too corrupt, or have plenty of things higher on the priority list than funding research into the disease. The result is that people will continue to die in a truly horrific way and working to prevent that is a noble goal.

Working to prevent that includes not allowing common sense to fall victim as well. This is not the plague that will wipe out humanity. The US won’t be turned into a Mad Max style wasteland by the transport of two sick people to a hospital in Atlanta. There are diseases that wipe out people at rates orders of magnitude above what Ebola is currently doing on the exact same continent. Does everyone remember SARS, mad cow, chronic wasting disease, ebola 20 years ago, swine flu, bird flu, or anthrax laced sponges? Did they all kill people? Yes. Did any of them wipe out civilization? No, and neither will this one. Treating this like a disease instead of the apocalypse is the fastest track to a cure.

As always, questions, comments, and criticisms are welcome. Answers are guaranteed.

You keep using the word Evolution; I don’t think it means what you think it means.

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I’ve been stuck in a review rut for a while, but just like what happened back in my Penis Cake[1] post, I heard something so mind numbingly wrong, it required a response. Today we’ll be taking a look at evolution through the eyes of creationist Darek Isaacs. He was recently featured on a segment of the show Creationism Today and he was attempting to answer the question, “If evolution were true, then how shall we live?” I’ll be transcribing pieces of it, but if you’d like to watch the two minute segment, you can find it here.[2]

‘How shall we live’ is an excellent question to ask and I’m always glad to see someone considering things from a worldview they consider to be counter to their own. Before I go to much further I’m going to make it crystal clear that I DON’T believe evolution and a belief in god are mutually exclusive. Many people find room for both in their lives. Darek Isaacs doesn’t, but many people do and this post is in no way meant to criticize that philosophical position. I’m sorry Mr. Isaacs, I interrupted you.

“If we were a product of evolution, of survival of the fittest, if there is no god, and we’re just here by random chaotic force, and we’re just molecules in motion if you will, how would that impact our lives?”

Interrupting you again. Evolution isn’t random. You may be thinking of the process of DNA recombination which does indeed have some elements of chance but even that chance isn’t random. We have plenty of species in the world who reproduce asexually, so don’t benefit from the DNA recombination that humans do. It turns out that the random recombination in sexual reproduction allows for a much more flexible genome and a species better able to adapt. This means we came to randomness not by randomness. To add to that just because DNA recombination can be random doesn’t mean the forces of natural selection are random, and to ignore natural selection is to ignore the actual engine behind evolution. Often people call evolution random as a nice shorthand though so they don’t have to type out the entire paragraph I just did each time they use the word, so I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt this time.

“I found out that once I studied it, and I studied Darwin, I studied Dawkins, Hitchens, E.O. Wilson, some of the purveyors of evolutionary thought.”

Not going to quibble about how some of the names you just mentioned certainly don’t consider themselves experts in evolution. I’m just going to be glad that once again you’re reading things from a different perspective. Reading sources that don’t fit exactly what you believe is how I stumbled upon this piece that I’m quoting. I’m certain you won’t stomp on my cheerfulness with your next sentence in a manner reminiscent of what a wildebeast migration does to a delicate savannah flower.

“And they led me to a very, very dark place. Because you have to start asking questions: Well, if evolution is true, and it’s just all about the male propagating their DNA, we had to ask hard questions, like, is rape wrong?”

Ok, I’m going to stop you again. The only way evolution leads you to that question is so you can look at that question, think to yourself, “That’s a stupid fucking question,” and then move on to ask a real question. From that sentence alone I can actually entirely disregard your previous statement that you studied evolution because if you had you’d know evolution isn’t about one sex’s DNA. Evolution doesn’t care about males more than females, females more than males, or either sex over creatures without sexes.

I’m going to interrupt myself here to point out that evolution doesn’t actually care about anything. It isn’t in any way a recommendation for how things ought to be. It is simply our best description of how things came to be the way they currently are. One more word from the segment before I get to his ‘hard question’

“Marriage would be, in an evolutionary worldview, marriage would be the anathema. Because it’s one man married to one woman for life, but according to the evolutionary worldview, if that male is strong enough and he had wonderful genes, he should propagate his DNA as much as possible so that the species can progress”

This passage nicely emphasizes not only something many people get wrong about evolution, but also why so many people who don’t understand evolution feel really intelligent for putting forward theories like this. It’s easy to play armchair biologist and come up with something that makes sense in your head for a certain physical trait or behavior to increase humanity’s survivability therefor evolution must work in such a way.

Temple Grandin does an excellent write up in her books Animals Make Us Human and Animals in Translation of a case study that shows why you can’t single out traits when looking at how a species might work. In the early 90s there was a massive increase in roosters raping hens on industrial chicken farms. The problem was never entirely pinned down, but the leading theory is that in breeding for increased breast size among the roosters, the roosters became physically unable to perform their mating displays. When the hens didn’t see any mating display, they didn’t become sexually active towards the rooster and as a result the incidence of roosters raping hens skyrocketed. You can’t look at any single trait in a vacuum when it comes to evolution.

The questions of ‘is rape wrong’ and ‘is marriage anathema to evolution’ both fall into the same trap of ignoring the phenomena of group selection. When you get multiple people working together towards the same purpose you often end up with better results than when you have just one person. There are plenty of cases in nature in which individuals don’t breed, but they still work towards the betterment of the species. You can see this in plenty of insects, ants and bees, where there is only one queen who breeds, but the whole hive still works together because everyone is related, so they’re still helping their genetics even by not directly creating offspring.

In humans this is called the gay uncle hypothesis[3]. More people nurturing children leads to an increased likelihood of those children surviving. Having limits to how many children can be produced, like having some members of the group interested in sexual relationships that can’t bare children, helps to keep the number manageable.

Marriage increases the likelihood of more people being around to raise a child and rape decreases the likelihood of more people being around to raise a child. If male monkey A rapes female monkeys, but doesn’t stick around to help raise the children, and male monkey B forms a long lasting pair bond with one female monkey and their children survive at a rate greater than monkey A’s then monkey B’s strategy is more successful even if he creates a smaller total of offspring if more of his offspring survive to adulthood. It doesn’t just matter how many children you have. Those children have to live long enough to pass on their genes as well or you might as well just be literally jerking off.

Are there species that rape and don’t use long term pair bonding? Absolutely, and that can work in other species in which the children can be independent at a much younger age. Humans put a lot of energy into each child and that’s why our species does better using methods that increase the number of caregivers per child like embracing pair bonding and shunning rape.

To sum up: evolution doesn’t care about male DNA as somehow special, it doesn’t encourage a group species like humans to do a thing that breaks up the family unit like rape each other, trying to judge any single trait by itself is a terrible idea, and how about people who haven’t actually studied biology stop trying to make claims about what it does and does not say.

As a final note, I’m not certain a biblical creationist should be trying to cast stones regarding ethical objections to rape considering Deuteronomy 22:28-29, “If a man finds a girl who is a virgin, who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her and they are discovered, then the man who lay with her shall give to the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall become his wife because he has violated her; he cannot divorce her all his days”

As always, questions, comments, and criticisms are welcome. Answers are guaranteed.

 

A Shot in the Arm for Society

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Bacteria, viruses, and parasites(oh my!) have always held a certain fascination to me. When you understand just how many ways our bodies can fail, and how many organisms are out there who are capable of exploiting those ways, you gain a better appreciation for your own continued existence. You also gain the ability to stay calm the next time reports start flooding your news medium of choice about the next epidemic that’s going to kill us all.

Remember in the 80s when ebola was going to kill us all? Remember in the early 90s when SARS was going to kill us all? Remember in the late 90s when mad cow disease was going to kill us all? Remember ten years ago when swine flu was going to kill us all? Remember a couple years ago when bird flu was going to kill us all? As it turns out, it’s tricky for diseases to kill us all.

It’s tricky not just because of our advanced immune system, but because of modern sanitation and medicine. There are methods that need reevaluation and are deserving of healthy debate. Overuse of antibiotics is an excellent example and the CDCs recent report about the rise of rates of resistant strains of ‘super gonorrhea'(worst superhero ever) lend credence to the need for a dialogue.[1]

On the other hand, there are branches of medicine that are considered settled science and should be beyond reproach. I’m speaking of vaccines. I would like to point everyone to a chart[2](Warning PDF) the CDC released regarding the effects of vaccination on the annual mortality rates in the US of certain diseases. One thing to note about the chart is it compares annual morbidity pre vaccine era with modern reported cases. It doesn’t compare deaths with deaths. I want to focus briefly on the measles line. Over 530,000 annual deaths had been reduced to only 61 reported cases and bear in mind that data is from the United States.

New reports out of New York have identified growing measles numbers in Manhatten, the Bronx, and Brooklyn[3] This follows last month’s announcement out of Massachusetts that there are new cases of measles there as well.[4] Sadly this year’s data is following a trend; 2013 was the measliest year in 17 years. Furthermore, of the cases reported to the CDC last year, 92% of infected individuals had not been vaccinated.[5]

Vaccines save lives at best and protect you from potentially disfiguring or disabling diseases at worst. The question is then why would anyone actively put lives at risk by choosing not to vaccinate a child who could medically receive a vaccination? Unfortunately we have an increasing number of celebrities who are answering that question for us, from co-host on ABC’s The View Jenny McCarthy to Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.[7][8] The walking public health dangers known as the anti-vaccination crowd largely rely on four common arguments.

1. My decision just affects my child, so society shouldn’t get to tell me what to do.

The MMR(measles, mumps, reubella) vaccine isn’t recommended until a child is one, and there are medical reasons a child can’t be vaccinated. Some individuals are legitimately allergic to components of vaccines. These people and young children are still protected by an important concept to understand when it comes to vaccinations. Herd immunity is best visualized in this graphic[6], but it’s worth a little more detailed description.

Think of herd immunity like creating deserts for diseases. When you eliminate food for pathogens by vaccinating most/all of a given population for thousands of miles accept a few minor oases(the people who medically can’t be vaccinated), the disease will have great difficulty getting to any of the oases and it will subsequently die out. If you leave too many oases in the desert by choosing not to vaccinate some members of a population then the disease is capable of jumping from one oasis to another and living on.

The decision to not vaccinate a child doesn’t just affect that child, it affects everyone by allowing diseases to live on which otherwise could be eliminated.

2.Vaccines contain mercury which is poisonous.

It is true that until 2001 some vaccines did contain a preservative which contained ethylmercury. Since 2001 that preservative has been removed from all vaccines except some flu vaccines. Even if it hadn’t though, it wouldn’t matter because the amount of ethylmercury per dose was 50 micrograms per .5ml dose which is below the toxic dose for mercury. AND EVEN IF ethylmercury was present at levels that were considered toxic for mercury, ethylmercury is not methylmercury. Methymercury is an organic neurotoxin, ehtylmercury is an inorganic preservative that exits the body harmlessly within one week of exposure even in infants.[7][8] Two words that look similar can behave radically different on a chemical basis. I’ve been breathing carbon-dioxide my whole live. If I started breathing carbon-monoxide it would end my life.

3. Pharmaceutical companies make money on vaccines so they’re lying about the effects to up their profit margin.

The tetanus, diptheria, pertusis vaccine is one shot and costs $37.55 if purchased from a private sector hospital.[9] The average cost to a family when a child is infected with pertusis is $3,810 between antibiotics, doctors appointments, possible emergency room visits, and extended hospitalization. [10] Not taking into account the protection given from tetanus and diptheria in the same shot, you’ve already paying 1% what you would be paying if your child actually got pertusis. Are pharmaceutical companies turning a profit? Yes. Is it anywhere close to the profit they could get if you got the disease instead? No. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure applies to the economic side of things as well.

This is only slightly related, but I’m including it here as long as pertusis is on our minds. Have you ever heard what whooping cough sounds like? I hope you haven’t, but it’s worth remembering the horrors of what life used to be like before the vaccine. I was in the middle of an infectious disease unit in high school and the teacher played a clip. It is a memory I wish I could get rid of. Hearing the whoop noise as a child manages to pull in a lungful of air in between full body coughing spasms is impossible to listen to without feeling empathy. I hesitantly recommend you give a listen.[11]

4(the big one). Vaccines cause autism.

Let’s go through a timeline.

1998: A British  doctor Named Andrew Wakefield published a study in the prestigious journal The Lancet claiming that the twelve children he looked at who all had autism spectrum disorders had their symptoms begin soon after administration of the MMR vaccine. This is the only study that has ever shown a link. No one has ever been able to recreate the data.

2004: Ten of the twelve coauthors of the paper formally retracted their names from the paper.

2009:  It was revealed that Wakefield willfully misrepresented the data in the paper. As it turns out his research was sponsored by a pharmaceutical group that had a competing MMR vaccine coming onto the market and they wanted the current vaccine discredited.

2010: The Lancet formally retraced the paper after a five member tribunal of the British General Medical Council found Wakefield guilty of 36 counts including twelve abuses of developmentally challenged children and multiple counts of dishonesty. The panel concluded he, “failed in his duties as a responsible consultant,” and was barred from practicing medicine in the UK.[12][13]

Despite the thorough debunking, the damage from the study has been done. The year after it was released, vaccination rates in the UK dropped by 20%. I’m going to drop my air of impartiality for a moment. Fuck Andrew Wakefield. He is responsible for misinforming millions and contributing to the death of children so that he could profit. Allow me to repeat with every bit of vitriol I can muster and all offense intended, fuck Andrew Wakefield.

I would also like to add that even if vaccines did contribute to autism(WHICH THEY DON’T), I would take the risk of autism over the combined risk of measles, mumps, rubella, diptheria, tetanus, pertusis, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, polio, and all the other diseases preventable through vaccination. This Penn and Teller bit nicely visualizes what I mean.[14]

Parents are looking for answers with autism, and once its mechanism is more thoroughly understood I imagine that will end the links to vaccines. There used to be a vaccine panic with SIDS, but now that it is better understood, no one accuses vaccinations of being the culprit anymore. My family is one of the millions that has been affected by autism. I understand the desire to have a villain and therefor something real you can fight against. Vaccines though are not the culprit.

I’m not exaggerating when I say vaccines may have saved more lives than any other medical procedure or invention ever and the rise of vaccines becoming a philosophical target is as short sighted as it is dangerous. Vaccines work, they save you, your children, your pet, and your neighbor. There are good reasons to question aspects of medicine and someday we may come up with something better than vaccines. As the science stands right now though, vaccines are about as flawless as possible. I’m glad my parents vaccinated me, I will be vaccinating my children, and you should do the same. I hope(just like a vaccine) this post has now given you the ability to fight off this particularly virulent strain of ignorance wherever it pops up next.

As always, questions, comments, and concerns are welcome. Answers are guaranteed.