I apologize for yet another blog post about Ebola. I admit that I do tend to ruminate on topics that have the potential for being an extinction level event (ELE). An ELE refers to a massive scale event that wipes out a large proportion of the world’s population. Such an event effectively brings to extinction many if not most species on the planet. It’s pretty hard to kill every form of bacteria [and some types of cockroaches] so an ELE will likely not wipe Earth clean of all life. But it can come close.
Humans tend to be quite selfish when it comes to survival. I think it is fair to say that most humans would sacrifice fleas, bees and apple trees, if it meant that the human race would be spared. But nature has its own preferences, and may very well decide to spare the apple trees and instead, wipe out all humans.
Before I start getting any email about exaggerating the risk of Ebola, let me already say that I am not personally or professionally concerned that Ebola will kill a significant proportion of the human population, in its present outbreak. Ebola will NOT be an ELE. But now the question is, how many people could Ebola hurt and kill ?
The simple math is that 90% of the world’s population could be killed off, and yet 800 million people would still be alive. This is approximately 2 1/2 times the population of the United States. This is not a small number. If “only” 50% of the world population is killed off by Ebola or some other virus or natural event (asteroids), then there will still be 4 billion people left, which is still far more than there were in the world, before the modern era. It is also likely that there are a significant percentage of humans who are naturally resistant to Ebola. At the very least, they are resistant enough so as not to die from it. As such, even if every person in the world was to be exposed to Ebola, the human population would not die off. In fact, it would not even come close. So once again, Ebola is NOT an ELE and will not come close to it.
Ebola is not even a contender for being a major killer and yet, it has stirred worldwide interest. Why is that? Within the developing world, the death of millions of children every year is effectively ignored. These deaths are from “boring” causes like starvation, dehydration, diarrhea, pneumonia and common childhood diseases for which vaccinations have not been given (like measles and polio). The very cynical (or perhaps perceptive) among us have noted that the panic over Ebola really began when 2 health workers became infected. What was special about these 2 individuals? Once again, it is those cynics who would claim that these individuals being infected by Ebola suddenly made it a “white man’s” disease.
There are Ebola outbreaks on a regular basis in Africa. They never make the front page news in the Western media. But when one person in the entire United States (now 2: A health care worker who treated the Liberian man has tested positive for the disease) is diagnosed with this vicious disease, one would think that war had been declared on America by another country. People start speaking of redirecting major funds towards finding a cure, and mobilizing the American army in order to make sure that the general public is protected.
This is not dissimilar to a previously heard comment that the best thing that can happen to research on a disease, is that it is contracted by a wealthy person or a celebrity. Funding for Parkinson’s research has gone up dramatically ever since Michael J Fox was diagnosed with the disease. People are people. And they tend to react to a situation that they feel is close to them, either emotionally or directly. It may very well be that the appearance of Ebola in the United States was the best thing that could happen to research into a cure, as well as cures for similar aggressive viruses.
In research, there is often spillover from one area of study to another. It may very well be that in studying Ebola, cures for other diseases, that are not even caused by viruses, will be discovered. You could argue that mother nature is not seeking to extinguish human life altogether. Instead, she is simply giving us a solid boot in the rear end to wake us up to the human tragedy that has gone unnoticed until now. Perhaps in finding a vaccine against Ebola, this will spark a worldwide campaign for vaccination that will also make sure that everyone is covered for all childhood diseases. Perhaps the technologies that are developed to control and cure Ebola will become widespread in the third world, and then be used for general diagnoses and health care. Perhaps finally, everyone will benefit from life-saving technologies. At least I can hope.
Present-day technology is allowing us to perform miracles in research laboratories. The ability to sequence DNA quickly and cost-effectively makes it possible to analyze all types of microscopic life in ways never before possible. The “simple” ability to amass incomprehensible amounts of data and then scan it for tiny but significant patterns, now allows us to identify trends in health and disease that were invisible to us until even a few years ago. All such technologies combined also play a role in fighting diseases like Ebola. Therefore, when someone is cautious about the threat of technology run wild, one must balance this concern against the potential for the same technology to save us from mass deaths.
At some point, this Ebola outbreak will be controlled and pass. The actual number of fatalities will likely end up in being in the thousands, not billions. I hope that Ebola, by triggering the worldwide response that it has, ends up saving more lives than it has taken.
Thanks for listening