Expontential Ebola

Gwynne Dyer on the dread virus: There are two good things about the Ebola virus, there are three bad things.

Gwynne Dyer

Here are two good things about the Ebola virus. It is unlikely to mutate into a version that can spread through the air, as some other viruses have done. And people who have been infected by Ebola cannot pass it on to others during the incubation period (between two and 21 days). Only when they develop detectable symptoms, notably fever, do they become infectious to others, and only by the transfer of bodily fluids.

Here are three bad things about Ebola. The “bodily fluids” that can transmit it include even the tiniest droplet of sweat: just the slightest touch can pass the virus on. The death rate for those who become infected is 70 per cent. And the US government’s Centers for Disease Control warned recently that we could have 1.4 million cases of Ebola by January.

Since the number of known cases so far is only around 7,500, that suggests that the number of new cases is doubling approximately every two weeks. This is called exponential growth: not 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 … but 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 … If you put one grain of wheat on the first square of a chess-board, two on the second, and keep doubling the grains every square, there are not enough grains of wheat in the world to get you to the 64th square.

Exponential growth always slows down eventually, but the question is when? A vaccine would slow it down, and the British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline already has one under development, but it is still in an early stage of testing. Human volunteers are now being given the vaccine to check for unforeseen side effects.

If no serious side-effects are found, the vaccine will then be given to health workers in West Africa. A process that normally takes years is being compressed into mere months, and 10,000 doses of the vaccine are already being produced (for the health workers). But it will be the end of the year before we know if it actually gives a useful degree of protection from the virus.

If it does, then millions of doses would have to be produced and injected into the people of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, where Ebola is already an epidemic — or tens of millions of doses if the disease has spread by then to more populous countries like Ivory Coast, Ghana or, worst of all, Nigeria, which has 175 million people.

Until and unless a vaccine becomes available in very large quantities, the only way to stop the exponential spread of Ebola in the affected countries is to isolate the victims, a task that is very difficult in mostly rural countries with minimal medical facilities. Liberia with 4.2 million people, had only 51 doctors and 978 nurses and midwives at the start of the crisis, and some of those have already died or fled.

You don’t need to find and isolate everybody who gets the disease to break the exponential pattern. Just isolating 75 per cent of them as soon as they become infectious would drastically slow the spread. But at the moment, in the three most affected countries, only an estimated 18 percent of the victims are being taken to treatment centres (where, of course, most of them will die).

This is why the most important intervention so far has been the dispatch of 3,000 US troops to Liberia, with the primary job of creating 17 large tent hospitals and training 500 nurses to work in them. Britain is providing 200 new hospital beds in its former colony of Sierra Leone, with 500 more in the next few months. Cuba has sent 165 health workers, China has sent 60, and France has sent various teams to help its former colony, Guinea.

But with the exception of the American aid to Liberia, it is all woefully inadequate. Nine months after the first case of Ebola was confirmed in Guinea, we are still playing catch-up, and playing it badly. Why is that? Aren’t the developed countries also at risk if the virus continues to spread?

Well, no, or at least their governments don’t think so. Even without a vaccine, they are confident that their health services can find and isolate any infected people quickly and prevent Ebola from becoming an epidemic in their countries. They are probably right, and so they see the limited help they are sending to West Africa as charity rather than a vital self-interest. But they may be wrong.

As Professor Peter Piot, who first identified the Ebola virus in 1976, said in a recent interview with Der Spiegel, “I am more worried about the many people from India who work in trade or industry in West Africa. It would only take one of them to become infected, travel to India during the virus’s incubation period to visit relatives, and then, once he becomes sick, go to a public hospital.

“Doctors and nurses in India often don’t wear protective gloves. They would immediately become infected and spread the virus.” Then you would have Ebola on the loose in a country of more than a billion people, millions of whom travel abroad each year. All hope of confining the disease to Africa and driving it back down to almost nothing, as was done in previous outbreaks, would be gone.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist based in London

Just Posted

With high temperatures forecasted for the week and into the next, Interior Health is offering some tips on how to keep yourself safe from heat-related illness. (Pixabay)
Interior Health offers safety tips as temperatures soar

“Too much heat can be harmful to your health.”

Kurt Swanson’s dog Kona takes a break from the heat on the Summer Solstice near Cranbrook, B.C. (Kurt Swanson photo)
Very warm temperatures forecast across the Kootenays this weekend

Nelson, Castlegar forecast to hit 39, Cranbrook 37

The view from the Eager Hill lookout in the Cranbrook Community Forest. (Corey Bullock/Cranbrook Townsman file)
New ‘Padawan’ trail at Eager Hill now open and ready for use

The 5km green flow trail is suitable for all ages

The City of Cranbrook and the Ktunaxa Nation raised the flag of the Ktunaxa Nation at the arches entrance into the city’s downtown core during a ceremony on Monday, June 21. Photo courtesy City of Cranbrook.
Ktunaxa Nation flag raised at downtown arches entrance

The Ktunaxa Nation flag was raised at the Cranbrook arches — the… Continue reading

Kimberley Search and Rescue were able to quickly respond to a call for service and transport an injured mountain biker to East Kootenay Regional Hospital over the weekend. Kimberley SAR file photo.
Kimberley Search and Rescue respond to injured mountain biker on Bootleg Mountain

Kimberley Search and Rescue responded to a call for service this past… Continue reading

Pictured is Mrs. O and her grade 4/5 class at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Cranbrook. Mrs. O challenged her class to read 36,000 pages in May and they far surpassed that goal. The students were then allowed to choose her fate. (Corey Bullock/Cranbrook Townsman file)
WATCH: St. Mary’s Catholic School grade 4/5 class wins reading challenge

Teacher lets students choose fate after reading over 47,000 pages in one month

Penticton mayor John Vassilaki and Minister of Housing David Eby have been battling over the Victory Church shelter and BC Housing projects in the city. (File photos)
Penticton heads to court over homeless shelter as BC Housing audit begins

The city was not satisfied with the response from Minister David Eby regarding the ongoing situation

People enjoy the sun at Woodbine Beach on June 19, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Tijana Martin
BC Hydro assures customers it has ‘more than enough’ power to weather the heatwave

Despite an increase of pressure on the Western grid, blackouts are not expected like in some U.S. states

Air Canada planes sit on the tarmac at Pearson International Airport during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Wednesday, April 28, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Pilots say no reason to continue quarantines for vaccinated international travellers

Prime minister says Canada still trying to limit number of incoming tourists

Six United Way chapters around the province are merging into United Way B.C. (News Bulletin file photo)
6 United Way chapters merging around B.C.

Money raised in communities will stay in those communities, agency says

Val Litwin is the latest candidate to declare his bid for the B.C. Liberal leadership. (Litwin campaign video)
Political newcomer joins contest for B.C. Liberal leadership

Val Litwin a former B.C. Chamber of Commerce CEO

Golden Ears Mountains, captured in May 2021. (Black Press Media files)
2nd year of day passes required for entry into 5 provincial parks launches in B.C.

Pilot program seeks to protect the environment by addressing visitor surges amid the COVID-19 pandemic

Lincoln Mckoen. (YouTube)
Anglican bishop of the central Interior resigns over sexual misconduct allegations

Lincoln Mckoen was elected as a bishop of the Territory of the People region last year

Left to right: Doug Ford, Jason Kenney, Brian Pallister (photos via Wikipedia)
Pollster paints a perilous premier picture

As we know, our friends at Angus Reid Polling like to take… Continue reading

Most Read