During the Age of Limits conference, Orren Whiddon asked us for predictions about when the apex of world population might occur and what might affect it. I think I said something about widespread outbreaks of disease caused by failing antibiotics, breakdowns in water management and poor sanitation in large cities. I was thinking about familiar scourges like influenza, malaria and botulism. I couldn’t come up with the word (sheesh) but I think Dan or someone just after me agreed that a pandemic might be in the offing. A few others agreed, too, but John Michael Greer pronounced pandemics to be as unpredictable as asteroids.
To most Americans, except for a few infected doctors being flown back, Ebola is mostly happening waaay over there in hot, crowded Africa, and I suspect that many think that Ebola could never happen here, anyway. Many MSM articles have concentrated on calming fears of another Black Death – because Ebola is not an airborne disease. At ScienceBlogs, while Tara Smith reblogged her Slate article, Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola, Orac took the opportunity to attack Ebola quackery.
Greer is now very, very concerned about Ebola and deep in the comment section of his latest post warns us:
… you’ll want to read up on Ebola, … its early symptoms resemble flu, it can stay latent for up to three weeks, and it spreads from person to person quite well — right now, the number of cases in Africa is doubling every 20 days, which is not the profile of an easily contained virus. Current estimates are that if things continue as they’re going, 1.4 million people will be infected by January 1, 2015; at that rate, we get 2.8 million by January 20, 5.6 million by February 9, 11.2 million by March 1, 22.4 million by March 21, and so on. It doesn’t take all that many more doublings — I’ll leave the number for you as a math exercise — before the total number of infected people passes the total population of the planet.
Now of course it’s not going to infect everyone on the planet; there are geographical barriers to get past, and odds are that the currently very high rate of transmission is being driven by extreme poverty, overcrowding, and poor sanitation. That said, unless something happens fairly quickly, Ebola will spread to East Africa; once it’s there, stopping it from getting to the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent will be a very difficult thing; and if that happens, it’s probably a safe bet that over the next five years or so, it’s going to hit the Third World globally and make forays into the more developed countries as well. We are potentially looking at the Black Death of the 21st century, and the easy assurance with which people in the developed world insist, inaccurately, that it’s not something they have to worry about is among the major factors that are driving Ebola toward pandemic status.
I’m glad I didn’t predict an asteroid, but I did start to read up on Ebola.
The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) admits that Ebola is out of control, but notes that the primary reason for the spread:
“is more likely to be a result of the combination of dysfunctional health systems, international indifference, high population mobility, local customs, densely populated capitals, and lack of trust in authorities after years of armed conflict. Perhaps most important, Ebola has reached the point where it could establish itself as an endemic infection because of a highly inadequate and late global response.”
It is certainly good that the US doesn’t have a dysfunctional health system in which people have to wait for several hours in a crowded emergency room to get treatment, and equally good that the US doesn’t have high population mobility, densely populated areas and lack of trust in authorities. Otherwise I might be worried.
Wake up, fools. What’s going on in West Africa now isn’t [Dan] Brown’s silly Inferno scenario — it’s Steven Soderbergh’s movie Contagion, though without a modicum of its high-tech capacity.
Last week, my brilliant Council on Foreign Relations colleague John Campbell, former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, warned that spread of the virus inside Lagos — which has a population of 22 million — would instantly transform this situation into a worldwide crisis, thanks to the chaos, size, density, and mobility of not only that city but dozens of others in the enormous, oil-rich nation. Add to the Nigerian scenario civil war, national elections, Boko Haram terrorists, and a countrywide doctors’ strike — all of which are real and current — and you have a scenario so overwrought and frightening that I could not have concocted it even when I advised screenwriter Scott Burns on his Contagion script.