Day: September 17, 2014

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

07:43 – I don’t know what I was thinking yesterday. I set up MIT CourseWare on the Roku box and sampled 10- or 15-minute chunks of three or four lectures from the chemistry and biology groups. I guess I was expecting it to be like drinking from the proverbial fire hose. These lectures are, after all, being given to some of the best and brightest students on the planet. But no fire hose there. It was more like trying to suck water from an eye dropper, drop by drop. I concluded that it will be much more time-efficient and effective for me just to read the textbooks.

More of the same today, building and shipping science kits. We’re down under half a dozen of the slide sets that are an option with the biology kits, and some of the slides that we use to build those sets are backordered through the end of November. Not a thing we can do about that. I could order similar slides from a different vendor, but they also have 60- to 90-day lead times.

13:00 – Derek Lowe has a good post up about the Ebola situation. He hits all the important points and, as usual, offers several thoughtful comments.

I’d go a bit further than Derek, though. While he says that if Ebola infections continue in large cities things could get out of control, I’d argue that they’re already out of control and that it’s pointless to put more people and resources on the ground in the affected areas. Humanitarian issues aside, I suspect the optimum course in the interests of humanity in general may be to place an absolute quarantine on anyone who has been in the affected areas or a surrounding buffer zone and allow the epidemic to burn itself out.

It’s not that I’m particularly cruel or heartless. I don’t want to see large numbers of people die horribly, but the fact is that there’s little or nothing anyone can do at this point. That train has left the station. Isolating and quarantining the affected areas and allowing the epidemic to burn itself out probably would not result in more deaths than are inevitable no matter what we do or don’t do. In fact, it may result in fewer deaths.

A widespread Ebola epidemic in Africa, which I think we’re going to see no matter what, may have a silver lining. As Derek mentions, viruses tend to mutate. Yes, it’s possible that Ebola will mutate for the worse, becoming airborne. But it’s much more likely that Ebola will mutate for the better. It’s a matter of evolution and natural selection. Pathogens that kill their hosts quickly are self-limiting, as Ebola has been. But a mutated variant of a pathogen that has a lower mortality rate has a competitive advantage because more of its victims survive to spread the pathogen. This happened, for example, with measles, which a thousand years ago was both easily spread and had very high mortality rates. It killed so many people so quickly–entire villages and towns died to the last person–that in many cases it destroyed its own vector. Nowadays, measles is endemic in much of the world and there are a couple dozen variants of the virus, some with higher mortality than others. But in general measles is now a relatively mild disease, with untreated death rates of less than 1%. I hope that Ebola will also mutate to a less malignant form, and I think we’re going to find out no matter what we do or don’t do about the current epidemic. For now, the essential effort should be to quarantine and contain the epidemic to the areas currently affected.

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