Are Middle Eastern terrorists using biological warfare? Is Big Gubmint culling the herd? Is the Illuminaughty at it again? Or is this is a disease, like diseases all throughout human history, which may or may not spread widely, depending on how well we handle it? Spoiler alert: It’s that last one.
You can get some historical perspective for free online at Yale Open Courses, “The History of Epidemics,” by watching the video lectures or reading the transcripts. I took this course last year and became interested in Ebola, “That’s one to keep an eye on, I thought.” Or perhaps you do not have 25 hours to spare, in which case here are some salient points:
Some diseases are prettier than others. For example, tuberculosis, which was a major cause of death right up until 1944, was considered a rather classy disease. People slowly grew pale, often went to woodsy sanitariums for quarantine and just “romantically” faded away.
Smallpox, which killed up to ninety-five percent of indigenous peoples after the Europeans landed, was ugly-but I won’t describe it because it has supposedly been eradicated by vaccines and you will never have to worry about it. Europeans were not wiped out by it because they had kept livestock for a long time and the milder cowpox gave them some immunity.
Bubonic plague, which killed 25-30 million people in the 14th century, or 30-60% of the European population, was grotesque. Entire cities were quarantined and Daniel Defoe wrote “A Journal of the Plague Year” about the quarantine of London in 1665. Pretty grim reading, except for this bright spot: when everyone decided they were walking dead men anyway, all class distinctions broke down and people became friendly and light-hearted. Bubonic plague lives on in certain populations of rodents in the United States and elswhere, but antibiotics usually cure it.
Diseases were judged to be horrifying if they were disfiguring, caused a lot of suffering, progressed rapidly, and struck at random; not just infants and the elderly, but people in the prime of life. The Spanish flu of 1918 actually killed more people than all the people who died in WWI, 50-100 million, or 3-5% of the world’s population. In fact, I suspect epidemics have had more impact on the course of history than our various Napoleons.
So should we worry about Ebola? It’s been around for awhile, first diagnosed in 1979. Doctors in moon suits have managed to restrict outbreaks to small regions of Africa. But it has escaped. It has escaped for a very human reason.
Imagine people in moon suits taking away your loved ones and you never see them again, not even to bury them? Burial rites can spread the infection, so the moon-suited ones were doing the right thing, medically, without considering the human emotions involved.
They think Ebola survives in wild animals, which West Africans readily eat. Bush meat is sold in local street markets, but it is not going to show up at your local supermarket, so the only way you can get Ebola is to be exposed to an infected person’s body fluids. We know how to isolate infections in America, it should be contained, unless some heroes decide to rescue an Ebola patient from the clutches of (insert favorite devil here) and set them free into the general population.
Ebola is an ugly disease and 90% fatal with no cure. I follow several conspiracy sites to gauge the public mood and I see the anti-Pharma rage machine is already kicking in. Do not trust the CDC, they say. Swine flu was a hoax, they say. The World Health Organization is an arm of the New World Order, they say.
Sometimes the conspiracy guys are right. The CIA was using polio vaccinators in Pakistan to gather information and when the locals found out, the vaccinators were assassinated. Now kids are getting polio again, but you can’t trust the health workers, they say.
But fervent conspiracy researchers please consider this before advocating total rebellion against the medical establishment: When I was about twelve, I took a shortcut through the cemetery and noticed many tombstones with the name “Coe” from the 1800s. I stopped to look at them and noticed that five Coe children had all died before their fifth birthdays. How sad, I thought. But before antibiotics and vaccines were developed it was normal for many children to die. We can’t even imagine that now.
Should you worry about Ebola? Not yet, but you should keep an eye on it. And be very glad this is not 1600.
Center for Disease Control: Ebola (updated frequently)
History of Epidemics (If nothing else, this will make you glad you live now and not 1600.
Documentary: Ebola, the Plague Fighters