Thursday 30 October 2014

The cost of stopping Ebola

The current death toll of nearly 5,000 means more people have been killed in the present ebola outbreak than in all previous ones put together. If you're wondering why the stricken countries in West Africa have been finding it so difficult to halt the epidemic, the Economist has crunched some interesting numbers.

Experts reckon ebola could be brought under control if 70% of the sick could be got into clinics or treatment centres where the spread of the virus can be halted, but to deal with the kind of case numbers being predicted for the next few weeks, that would require tens of thousands of beds.

Medecins Sans Frontieres and other charities, as well as governments like those of the US and the UK, have been busily building, but the WHO calculates that running just a 50-bed ebola hospital would cost nearly $1 million a month. No wonder the UN says a 20-fold increase in aid is needed.

And it's not just the buildings. The three countries where most people have died - Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia - have only a few hundred doctors between them, and some of those have now died of the disease. 

Friday 24 October 2014

Who killed who in Rwanda?

Twenty years after the genocide in Rwanda in which up to a million people were murdered in 100 days, the Rwandan government wants to prosecute the BBC over a television programme which challenges the accepted view of what happened.

The conventional wisdom is that Hutu extremists massacred mainly Tutsis as well as some Hutu moderates. The programme, Rwanda: the Untold Story, includes contributions from an academic who argues that there were only about 500,000 Tutsis in the country, and that 300,000 survived, so most of the victims must have been Hutus.

Prof Allan Stam paints a picture of a general breakdown in law and order, and says most of the victims may have been Hutus. When he presented his findings, the government rejected them, and he was asked to leave the country.

The genocide was sparked by the mysterious shooting down of the president's private jet. The programme includes allegations that Rwanda's current president, Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, was behind the attack, but he has always denied such allegations, and blamed Hutu extremists.

Thursday 23 October 2014

Wisdom and plagues

A Spanish website quotes from my account of a devastating plague that hit Rome in the second half of the 2nd century AD in my Disastrous History of the World.

One of those carried off by the epidemic, which raged for 15 years, was the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The historian Edward Gibbon considered him the last great Roman emperor before the rot set in, and begins his famous Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire with Marcus Aurelius's death. (It is also the starting point for the film, Gladiator.)

The emperor refused to see his son before he died in case he passed on the sickness, and his last words were: 'Weep not for me; think rather of the deaths of so many others.' This philosopher emperor had already written in his Meditations that the pestilence was less deadly than falsehood and evil conduct.

One thing we are not sure of is what exactly the disease was. It used to be thought that it was bubonic plague, but some scholars now believe it was smallpox.

Thursday 9 October 2014

Reminder - Flood talk TONIGHT

A reminder that I'm giving a talk entitled 'Are floods getting worse?' at Swiss Cottage Library, 88 Avenue Rd, London NW3 3HA tonight, October 9, at 1830, based on my book Flood: Nature and Culture. (Reaktion Books) Admission free.  All welcome.   

For full details, see my post of Sept 20.

Wednesday 8 October 2014

The march of ebola

This is now by far the worst ebola outbreak the world has ever seen, with 3,400 people dead, and 7,500 confirmed cases, though the true figure is thought to be much higher. The deadliest until now saw 280 people die in 1976 in Zaire, now Congo.

Most of the deaths have happened in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, with the World Health Organisation expressing concern at the poor state of the health services in those countries. Liberia says it is short of ambulances, and that it has only a third of the number of treatment centres it needs.

Now alarm is sweeping through Spain after a nurse who had been treating two missionaries who caught ebola in Africa, was found to be infected herself. It had been hoped that the stringent safety precautions available in modern hospitals would prevent the virus spreading.

Her husband and five other people are now in quarantine and another 50 are being monitored, while the European Commission has asked Spain for an explanation as to how the nurse became infected.

Sunday 5 October 2014

Where AIDS began

The origins of the AIDS pandemic have been traced back to 1920s Kinshasa in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 60 years before the disease first came to international attention. It has now infected nearly 75 million people.

Researchers from Oxford and Leuven used mutations in the virus’s genetic code to discover its roots. It is thought to have originated in chimpanzees before making the jump to humans.

When it arrived in Kinshasa, the city was growing rapidly. Thousands of male labourers had poured in, so that they outnumbered women by two to one. A thriving sex industry developed and medical records show that sexually transmitted disease was widespread.

It seems the virus then travelled via the railway network, and through vaccination campaigns where unsterilised needles were used. The researchers describe the conditions prevailing in 1920’s Kinshasa as a ‘perfect storm’.