Monday, 29 September 2014

Science, scientists, and pandemics

The deadly Ebola virus is spreading relentlessly in West Africa even as scientists work around the clock to find an effective way to contain it. In the midst of the race against time to find a solution to contain the pandemic, several frontline science and health workers are paying with their lives.

As many as five co-authors of a study entitled ‘Genomic surveillance elucidates Ebola virus origin and transmission during the 2014 outbreak’ published recently in the journal Science have died after being infected with Ebola during the course of their work. Biographies of the Sierra Leone-based doctor, Sheik Humarr Khan, an expert on Ebola and a medical director of a programme run by Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Health and Sanitation, and his four colleagues are sketched in a recent article in Science Insider.

Ebola is a real threat to humankind. The world outside Africa, complacent as it is about the reach of this disease, is largely unaware of the risks the scientific and medical community at the grassroots are dealing with while they work selflessly to not only treat those affected by the disease but also to isolate and neutralise the virus. With over 2,900 people already dead from the Ebola virus, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that the epidemic is spreading rapidly across Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea and called for urgent assistance from world governments. The range of responses include the widely welcomed offer of Cuba to send over 400 doctors and nurses to the affected countries, financial aid from the World Bank and a promise by the United States to deploy 3000 military troops in Liberia. The step-up in terms of a global response comes even as the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon called for a global corps of medical professionals, “backed by the expertise of WHO and the logistical capacity of the United Nations. Just as our troops in blue helmets help keep people safe, a corps in white coats could help keep people healthy.”

If the threat is not yet tangible for many, the world of fiction has a cautionary tale or two. One of us just watched Brad Pitt’s World War Z, a visually dramatic movie about the spread of a zombie pandemic. The story (see trailer) is that of a vicious virus with rabies-like symptoms that turns people into zombies. These zombies then reach out to healthy people and infect them in droves. While city after city is overtaken by armies of zombies, it is up to a former United Nations investigator and a team of WHO scientists to take on the marauding forces. Observing that the zombies don’t touch the sick or the infirm, the team figures out that the only way to stop the zombies was to vaccinate people with strains of a curable disease. These diseases served as a ‘mask’ to protect the people from the advances of the zombies.

Science and fiction, of course, have an ongoing relationship as we have shown in many of our earlier blog posts. An article forthcoming in PUS also talks about this relationship. The article by Van Gorp, Rommes, and Emons outlines the representation of scientists in “fiction and non-fiction media aimed at Dutch children and teenagers”. The authors identify seven prototypes of the scientists depicted – “the genius, the nerd, the puzzler, the adventurer, the mad scientist, the wizard, and the misunderstood genius”. They also raise the possibility of what they call a “rare prototype” of “the doubter”, representing “scientific progress as more capricious and challenging”.