Ebola – Not so little anymore

One of the points that I try to drive home in multiple blog posts is that modern technology, and specifically modern data analysis capabilities, make it possible to do things and predict things that we simply could not do or predict before. And when I say “before”, the time period I am speaking of, may be as little as 10 years. During so little a time, computers and their analysis capabilities have grown tremendously, and that may very well be the difference between 1 day and 1 month (or 1 year) of work to calculate the answer to a critical medical question.

I have previously spoken of Ebola but this new article truly paints an apocalyptic picture of the danger from this virus. There are those who immediately dismiss the Ebola scare as the equivalent of the H1N1 outbreak a few years ago. You may remember that with the initial outbreak of the H1N1 flu, there was talk of a high mortality rate and an easy spread of the disease from one human to another. The world literally entered into a state of terror and the populace was asking how it was that a cure and/or vaccine was not yet available. Medications that had an anti-flu effect were flying off the shelves even though there was initially little evidence that they would help. Had H1N1 truly been as dangerous as initially feared, the panic alone could have killed a tremendous number of people.

Senior members of the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) usually try to calm the public, but in the case of Ebola, they seem to purposely be using terms like “plague” in order to scare people into reacting sufficiently fast and aggressively. In a paper published 26/09/2014 (the day before this post), the authors concluded as follows: “If conditions continue …, cases will continue to double approximately every 20 days, and the number of cases in West Africa will rapidly reach extraordinary levels.”

Major efforts are being made to stop Ebola from spreading at such rates:
1) informing local health personnel on how to isolate suspected cases and how to rule out the disease
2) training local staff in proper burial techniques to avoid spread by contact with sweat, blood, tears and other bodily fluids
3) Efforts are being made to develop treatments and vaccines. ZMapp is an experimental drug for treating Ebola. Also, the NIH (National Institutes of Health) will begin initial human testing of an investigational vaccine in September.

I personally believe that the same senior CDC specialists who are warning of potential massive spread of the disease, also believe that the efforts being made to contain Ebola will succeed. But these efforts must be enacted as soon as possible. The reason that these specialists are using severe descriptions of the risk from Ebola,  is that every single day (not week or month, but day) of delay in controlling the Ebola spread could translate into a tremendous number of deaths.

Let me point out that at the moment, there is absolutely no evidence of the disease having spread to Israel, Europe or the US. It is sad to say but were there to be any proof of Ebola having reached a westernized country, the entire westernized world would mobilize far more than they have so far. And widespread military action (to isolate communities to minimize spread) would come into play.

The death rate from Ebola is nearly 50% and thus makes this one of the deadliest diseases known to man. A critical question to ask is: how is it that people survive what is clearly a vicious virus. The difference between death and life may be the baseline health and age of the patient. But one must also consider that there is some inherent genetic component (that we are as of yet unaware of) that plays a role.

Another technology that has become much more practical for widespread use is individualized genetic mapping. If you could find the gene(s) that decides a single person’s resistance to a given disease like Ebola, this could help you identify those people at greatest risk from the virus. Those people without a natural immunity or at least resilience to Ebola, would be the first people to be vaccinated or treated (once these options exist).

In other words, there are many tools available today for fighting disease. And the number of these tools is increasing relatively quickly. When you employ the entire arsenal of anti-viral weapons, the chances of beating back even such an aggressive disease are very high. Even in these last 10 years, there have been major advances in data collection, data analysis, remote teaching of disease management, new techniques for rapid treatment and vaccine development, and genetic analysis of at risk populations. All of these advancements are key to our present day success. In another 10 years, our ability to deal with such outbreaks will be manyfold greater than it is today.

The final message I would like to pass on is that it is possible to contribute to the welfare of the world from many directions. Investment is necessary (and potentially very profitable – yes, that matters) for making faster computers, improving communications across the world, selling cheap smartphones that are affordable even in the developing world, writing new programs that can analyze huge quantities of data faster, genetic analysis and more.

Unquestionably, the whole world of biotechnology is sitting at a critical juncture point in the history of mankind. And investment and development in this field will definitely save lives, today and tomorrow.

Thanks for listening and Shana Tova


About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.
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