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At the KEMRI Scientific and Health Conference: what is the way forward for African research?

I didn’t hear about this until the very last minute, but was lucky enough to get the invitation letter in time to at least make it to the last day.

The Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) has, for the past five years, held a research dissemination event intended to highlight KEMRI sponsored and Kenya based research.

Research led by Africans is sadly scarce. R&D funding in SSA is the lowest in the world. In a context where so few people are able to receive an education of sufficient quality to allow post graduate studies, African researchers are few and the resources available to them are low.

Kenya has committed 2% of GDP to R%D. Contrast this with South Korea, which at one point committed 23% of GDP to R&D efforts. While KEMRI is truly a leader in the context of African research, the low level of commitment on the part of the national government makes it tiny in the context of worldwide research.

The presentations I have seen so far have been excellent, but of course, much of this research survives on the good graces of international funding and training. Most of the research presented was performed within the CDC.

So this begs the question, when will and can African countries take ownership of their research? Is this even possible given the dysfunctional nature of politics here?

The story of Africa and African identity (in a global context) is written by the rest of the world. As a foreign researcher, I quite aware that I am part of this phenomenon.

Presenters have pointed to two main issues (which I agree with). First, African countries cannot proceed to develop their research sectors (or any other sector really) unless Africans take charge of in country and continent wide research priorities. It is important to note that foreign research often takes on issues which were of importance in the colonial period (childhood infectious diseases) despite a growing burden of chronic diseases and diseases of aging which will break the budgets and economies of African countries.

While I do not suggest that attention be diverted from the incredible burden of infectious disease in African countries, it is telling that research priorities are still driven by the international community. Central Province in Kenya is quite well developed. Even my taxi drivers ask me why we don’t do research in Central, given the incredible problems of heart disease, cancer and alcoholism up there. Unless Kenyans spearhead the main issues impacting their country, these problems will go unadressed.

Second, as noted before, governments have to make firm commitments to support domestic research. As of now, African countries wait for international funding to support their projects, which shifts the conversation away from domestic priorities to international priorities. This is a tall order here, of course.

Of interest, though, besides the macro level problems of funding and support, presenters passionately call for people with Masters and PhD to use the degrees. “Why don’t you do research? What is wrong with you?”

I can’t speak to this issue effectively. But my sense is that many capable people don’t sense the urgency of doing research and lack the personal initiative to make it happen. I’ve seen it happen that researchers wait to have foreigners write their research for them, and simply wait to have their name rubber stamped on the paper, taking credit for work that they did not do. This is an unacceptable situation that we, unfortunately, enable. Certainly there are issues of experience and capability, but we shouldn’t handle capable African researchers with kid gloves, particularly this well educated young generation.

Sadly, the history of aid and foreign involvement here has set this precedent. This is an era that needs to come to an end. In the private sector, it has. In the public sector, these problems persist. Older researchers, many of whom came of age during the beginnings of the post-independence era, here are screaming that point at the top of their lungs.

Links I liked January 23, 2015

Measles cases by yearSome public/global health things that caught my eye today:

1. A visit to the most sickest town in America, a coal mining town in Virginia. Dear Republicans, pay for health care now and abandon “clean coal” or pay more later. It’s up to you. (The Atlantic)

2. How paid sick leave could boost American productivity. (CEPR)

3. Dealing with antibiotic resistance is going to take more than just technology. We can’t sit by and watch everything burn around us while we wait for new drugs to come down the pipe…. because they aren’t coming. (Project Syndicate)

4. I want to deny vaccine deniers. Generally speaking, I don’t like people who are willing to sacrifice kids for politics. Vaccine deniers stick together and increase risks for everyone. (WP) and this one, which puts it all into a nice picture for you. (WP)

5. Diseases without borders: ignoring the problem of piss poor health care in developing countries won’t help us from Jim Kim of the World Bank. (Project Syndicate)

Links I liked: November 26, 2014

Can African Countries Learn from North Korea’s Handling of the International Media? – An interesting perspective. He argues that African leaderships, rather than seizing crises as opportunities to draw attention and approval for their countries from Western donors, might actually benefit from clamping down on international media coverage, which often exploits and distorts the story. I’m thinking that the Ebola panic might have been averted if the media hadn’t picked up on the most freakish elements of the story, and focused rather on the mundane issues of poor public health care delivery.

Colonialism and development in Africa – “Most of Africa spent two generations under colonial rule. This column argues that, contrary to some recent commentaries highlighting the benefits of colonialism, it is this intense experience that has significantly retarded economic development across the continent. Relative to any plausible counterfactual, Africa is poorer today than it would have been had colonialism not occurred.” The authors, however, note the different contexts of colonialization and remark that results are mixed, but in general, the countries that have done the best (i.e. those which didn’t experience slavery) would be doing significantly better.

Stop Making Intellectually Disingenuous Market Arguments – “Shall we blame Twitter, trolls or bloggers? I am unsure of the underlying reason. But as we have seen far too, financial discussions seem to entail people arguing at cross-purposes. Bull-bear debates devolve into winning the argument at any cost. Previously, we had a true competition of ideas in the marketplace. Now, we have discussions that range between disingenuous and useless. The hunt for the truth has been replaced by the search for bragging rights.” Well, Barry, I don’t think you should limit your observations to only those talking about markets. It’s endemic now.

An autopsy review of sudden unexpected natural deaths in a suburban Nigerian population – “Sudden unexpected natural deaths accounted for 13.4% of all medico-legal autopsies. The male to female ratio was 2.1:1, and the mean age was 43.1 years ± 19.5 SD. Cardiovascular (28.3%), respiratory (18.2%), and central nervous system (12.6%) disorders were the major groups of causes. About 64.4% of cardiovascular deaths were due to hypertensive heart disease. Bacterial pneumonia, intracerebral haemorrhage, and breast carcinoma accounted for 34.4%, 60.0%, and 52.6% of respiratory, central nervous system, and cancer-related deaths respectively. Only 16.9% of cases occurred while the patient was admitted to the hospital.” Twice as many men are dying as women, they are dying of heart disease and the average age of death is 43, give or take 20 years. Time to move our focus over to chronic outcomes in developing countries. They are staring into a tidal wave of disease that’s going to break their health systems.

Economics Is a Dismal Science for Women – Wow. Just wow.

Links I liked, November 18, 2014

I liked so many things I read today that, rather than clutter social media, I’ll make note of them right here:

“Falling” by William McPherson – By far, the most depressing thing I have read in a while. McPherson is a Pulitzer winning writer and former editor at the Washington Post who chose a life of curiosity and is now paying the ultimate price. It’s awful that the brightest people have to be punished for thoroughly embracing life. So many people I know are going to go this way, it is possible that I might, too.

In India, Growth Breeds Waste NYT – Documenting India’s mounting problem of what to do with its waste. Europe went through their urbanization pains centuries ago. Unfortunately, developing countries are rising to the challenge fast enough. The problem, of course, is that elites are sheltered from the problems of waste and weak and corrupt government structures disallow people from demanding that their countries clean up. International environmentalists need to focus less on screaming about corporate polluting (though it is important) and need to start making demands for more boring things, like managing waste on a local level.

Stop calling me ‘the Ebola nurse’ – Kaci Hickox – This lady was a hero. She never had ebola, but was still illegally interned for having it because a few Americans don’t understand science. Anybody who supported her detainment should just stop speaking to me now. It was shocking how readily Americans were willing to lock people up simply because they were scared and even more shocking where the calls for her “arrest” came from. I give up. People like Hickox put their money where their mouths are. She did what most humans wouldn’t do and she was vilified for it. Unforgivable.

Ten Things that Anthropologists Can Do to Fight the West African Ebola Epidemic I think it should be required that every field research project include an anthropologist.

Q Fever Is Underestimated in the United States: A Comparison of Fatal Q Fever Cases from Two National Reporting Systems People are dying of Q, but much of it isn’t recorded.

Today is Jonas Salk’s 100th birthday

100 years ago today, Jonas Salk was born. As the creator of the inactivated polio vaccine, he not only changed the course of human history, he also ushered changed the field of public health forever. We can count the polio vaccines and the elimination of smallpox as probably the two great success of public health.

In its mildest form, polio causes a mild bout of diarrhea. In its worst form, the virus migrates to the spine, impedes development and causes debilitating long term paralysis. My grandfather was struck with the disease and had one of his legs stunted and weakened (though he managed to serve in WWII anyway as a Marine). A carpenter who worked for me a while back died due to long term respiratory complications from a childhood polio infection.

Polio is mostly foreign to anyone born in my generation. We were nearly all vaccinated, and the high levels of vaccination have destroyed opportunities for the virus to persist in the environment, protecting everyone, even those who don’t get the vaccine.

Unfortunately, though Salk’s achievements were great, medical care and attention to polio was hardly equitable and tainted by the racism of the time.

During the 1930s the systematic neglect of Black polio victims had become publicly visible and politically embarrassing. Most conspicuously, the polio rehabilitation center in Warm Springs, Ga, which Roosevelt, himself a polio survivor, had founded, accepted only White patients. This policy, reflecting the ubiquitous norm of race-segregated health facilities, was sustained by a persuasive scientific argument about polio itself. Blacks, medical experts insisted, were not susceptible to this disease, and therefore research and treatment efforts that focused on Black patients were neither medically necessary nor fiscally justified.[1]

It is likely true that African Americans experienced a lower burden of disease than white children. We now know that polio’s worst effect arise from the lack of acquired immunity to the disease. Repeated infections from infancy, most importantly during the first six months, when babies still have maternal antibodies to fight for them. Improvements to sanitation delayed exposure to the virus, so that children were not immune and thus more susceptible to the disease’s worst effects.

In short, polio is a disease of development, not underdevelopment. The horrible racism of the pre-civil rights medical system can’t be denied, but the observed disparities in disease incidence might have not been imagined given the disparities in sanitation and access to clean water.

Presently, we are fighting a battle to insure that all kids in Sub-Saharan Africa are vaccinated. However, there still exist pockets where the medical system so dysfunctional and the politics so chaotic, that vaccination rates are low and disease continues to flourish. In places like Afghanistan and Northern Nigeria, the hope of polio elimination is almost non-existent

 

1.    Rogers N: Race and the Politics of Polio: Warm Springs, Tuskegee, and the March of Dimes. American Journal of Public Health 2007, 97(5):784.

 

Ebola: we don’t have time to waste

Ebola is a cool disease. It transmits among fruit bats in the area in and around the Central African Republic. Apes live in and under the trees the bats live in and ingest their feces. Humans who ingest the apes pick up the virus when slaughtering the animal, or so some think. The truth is that no one really knows for sure.

Contacts between humans is increasing as settlements expand and a demand for meat increases. Lacking access to formal methods of employment, individual sellers happily take advantage of market demand and a thinly profitable trade in bushmeat profulgates. Meat equals success and in the place of professionally or pastorally raised beef, which is mostly unavailable to poor people in countries like Liberia and Sierre Leone, people eat the monkeys, chimps and many other of our cousins which are able to harbor the many of the same pathogens we do.

One person gets sick. He or she has no access to formal care because his or her government can’t or won’t provide it so he remains at home. The family consults the local herbalist who provides some medications which offer temporary psychological relief but nothing more. As time ticks on, the victim becomes even sicker until the situation becomes so serious that the family has no choice but to carry their dying loved one to a health clinic 20 km away from their house. Along the way, everyone carrying him or her touches infected feces and vomit and three weeks later the process is repeated.

This could have all been avoided if rural economies were developed enough so that a mass migration to urban areas wasn’t necessary, had there been safer sources of meat available for an affordable price, were there sufficient jobs which wouldn’t necessitate the bushmeat trade, were the governments of Liberia and Sierre Leone effective enough to place a proper health facility close by to patient 0’s house and if health care was dependable enough to be able to spot and deal with an Ebola case.

Ebola is a conflation of ecology, economics, sociology, culture and politics, all mixed together to create conditions for one of the worst health crises the African continent has seen since HIV. It’s going to erase any of the gains of the past decade and collapse the already struggling health systems of some of the poorest places on the planet.

Meanwhile, the United States is having another 9/11 moment and this is where I’m starting to get quite concerned. Panic is about to become policy. Fears of global terrorism prompted our entry into Afghanistan, which might have been justified. But it also paved the way for the invasion of Iraq, which, from the beginning, was a disaster waiting to happen. Out of 9/11, we got the Patriot Act, a massive expansion in government powers to search, seize and detain and America stood by and allowed it to happen with little debate.

I am not a Libertarian, though keep getting accused of being one. I believe in public schools, public health care and government oversight of dangerous industries. So there. John Galt wouldn’t be much into me (but I guess from the far, far left anyone looks like a Libertarian).

I am, however, despite my leftist pedigree, quite concerned with the rights of individuals and the potential for panic and ignorance to lead to a rhetoric that can quickly spiral out of control and veer seemingly caring people away from the direction that the moral compass would normally point us in. I am remembering how many Americans supported torture during Bush II and wondered how many of them would support torture were it to be practiced on their own children. Though seemingly alarmist, I think that we need to be extremely careful.

Enough about me. The reality of Ebola is that it is a man-made crisis. Forest dwelling locals have eaten bushmeat for as long as humans have lived there but there is little evidence that there has ever been a large scale outbreak like the one we are currently experiencing (though history in Africa is often obscure). As I noted earlier, many forces are at play, all of which are associated with the rapid social change that Sub-Saharan African states are currently experiencing.

Some of these forces are inevitable. Population growth, as it did in Europe and Asia before, has led to the creation of mega-cities. The connections, however, between the rural and the urban, however have not been severed. People are going to do what they do, regardless of risk, particularly if they can make a buck meeting some market demand.

Some forces, though, are avoidable. While health care did not initiate the crisis, it helped drag it along. Liberia and Sierre Leone can boast to have two of the worst health systems in the world, but their poor capabilities are hardly unique in Sub-Saharan Africa. NGOs and missionary groups work to plug some of the gaps, but the reality is that without a concerted and proactive effort from the governments of those countries, the system will never improve. International funding is too poor and weak national economies and top heavy tax structures can’t adequately fund these systems domestically. Poor funding leaves many clinics, particularly those in rural areas where these outbreaks begin, without supplies, trained staff and diagnostic equipment. In Kenya, Malawi and Tanzania, I’ve seen more than one rural clinic without power or clean water. Worse yet, Ebola outbreaks, though devastating, are infrequent so that more pressing needs like malaria, diarrheal disease and HIV eat up the brunt of the already scarce funds clinics receive. Pathogens not only compete in the wild, but also for funding and support. This leaves many rural health workers without the protective gear they need, so that they work are the highest risk for death from diseases like Ebola.

What can we do? First, we can calm down. In the United States, the reality is that one of far more likely to be killed by an oncoming car than from Ebola and the probability of sustained transmission extremely low. Though people like to view domestic transmission events such as the one in Texas as failure, the reality is that public health and medical resources move much more quickly and effectively in Texas than in troubled Liberia. Much is made over Ebola’s lethality, but a patient who is found to be infected in the United States has a vastly higher likelihood of surviving than one in Liberia.

Second, leaders can stop spreading and capitalizing on misinformation. While attractive, promoting hysteria only leads to bad policy. The tendency in America is to view as some kind of apocalyptic movie scenario. While fun (not to me), the reality is that there are people in the world who are dying who shouldn’t be. Moreover, closing schools because someone knows someone who knows a Liberian is just simply unwise and counterproductive in the long term.

Third, the international community needs to engage the governments of Liberia and Sierre Leone to improve their public health infrastructure. This is not an easy task. The histories of working relationships of international health bodies and developing countries governments are fraught with failure. Mutual distrust, corruption and indifference of political leaders to the plight of their constituencies has created a mostly untenable system. However, providing supplies and training come at little cost is a mostly uncontroversial affair.

How long will this last? No one knows but it is inevitable that, even if this epidemic is brought under control, it certainly won’t be the last of its kind. We don’t have time to waste.

Ebola: a poor example of disease transmission, but maybe that’s not an accident

Ebola2I’m reading through news about the American rights hijacking of the Ebola crisis for their own political gain. Did this outbreak have to occur right before the midterms, and right before a Senate election? The awful toll it will take on West African states aside, the virus couldn’t have picked a worse time (or a better, depending on how you look at it).

Ebola is a scary virus, assuming that one ever has the misfortune to come into contact with it. “Contact” in this case, means that you have to have direct contact with the blood, feces or vomit of a person infected and symptomatic with Ebola. Unfortunately for the virus, people don’t really live that long once they become symptomatic with the disease and the people who survive appear to be immune to it

This is a terrible model for an infectious pathogen. The symptoms are so severe that all around the person will immediately run away (except health workers, who bear the brunt of the risk) and the host doesn’t live very long providing only a short window with which to infect other hosts.

So the duration of infectiousness is short, the pathways are really awful and repeat infections are unlikely.

To put this into perspective, looks at the most successful pathogens out there, pathogens like influenza. Influenza transmits easily, nearly two thirds of those infected show no symptoms and thus can happily shed viral particles to everyone they know undetected. When symptoms do occur, they aren’t so bad as to keep every outside of a 5 miles radius of you. Influenza mutates at an incredible rate, so that a single infection doesn’t provide much protection against later infections. Even better, though its rapid mutation rate sometimes leads to horribly virulent strains like the 1918 flu pandemic which killed millions, in most cases influenza spares a healthy host.

It has developed an incredibly efficient and effective survival strategy (and for this reason is far scarier than Ebola).

So I’ve been thinking of how a virus like Ebola might persist in the wild, given it’s odd mode of transmission.

Now, we know that Ebola is a zoonotic disease, that is, it is transmitted from animal to humans. Since humans have not developed genetic resistance to the disease, we are at particular risk for its worst effects. Many of the scariest diseases out there are zoonoses. Examples would include HIV, SARS and, of course, influenza. While not always true, we tend to make peace with pathogens that are old and exclusively human. Many of the bacteria which live happily in your gut would be examples. As we haven’t had sufficient time to make peace with Ebola or HIV, the outcomes can be far worse than those seen in their normal hosts.

Thus, it is possible that Ebola is far less serious in whatever host it is adapted for. Nipa virus, which has a case fatality rate (the percentage of all infections of a pathogen which result in death) of more than 90% does nothing to the fruit bats it happily resides in. It is possible that Ebola is also harmless to whatever host it depends on.

However, it is possible that Ebola might be harmless in some hosts, while deadly in others, and this difference might be the result of a successful evolutionary adaptation.

Ebola has been pegged as residing in bats possibly explaining its wide range over central Africa. [1-6] Bats are a pathogens dream. They multiply quickly, providing ample opportunities for transmission and for evolutionary adaptations to the pathogen which might insure its long term survival. Better yet, they fly so that pathogens can disperse themselves quickly over a large geographic space. This is particularly useful if the pathogens wants to maintain healthy genetic diversity (though the creation of multiple sub-populations) and if it can infect multiple hosts which may or may not be all that mobile.

Apes would be a good example of the latter. Apes, being fairly sensitive to environmental changes, don’t like to move around a whole lot (unlike humans which are highly adaptable to just about any environment on the planet) but still might be important to the survival of the pathogen.

Ebola has been found in apes and the disease is currently devastating local populations.[4, 7-10]

And this is where I get stuck. In nature, plenty of things happen for no reason at all, but with pathogens, even accidental occurrences can have implications for survival and are often part of the tool box with which diseases evolve and persist.

A bleeding ape on a forest floor will likely kill all of its relatives in quick fashion, assuming its family doesn’t just hightail it out in which case transmission is over anyway. But the dead ape might serve an important purpose. Predators and scavengers will quickly arrive to feast on the infected corpse, transmitting the virus to carnivorous animals all around the forest. This could provide ample opportunities for transmission to other species. Even though many of these species could be poor hosts for the disease, they could also represent new opportunities for survival.

HIV would be an example of this. From HIV’s standpoint (assuming a collective viral consciousness), the jump to humans was extremely fortuitous. Humans love to have sex with multiple people, often even after having already reproduced, and physiologically they proved resistant enough to allow the virus to hang out for a few years before dying, allowing for years of transmission possibilities.

Thus, while on the surface, blood based modes of transmission seem pretty useless, they could serve a larger purpose of insuring a pathogens survival on a macro-level. In the case of HIV, humans didn’t turn into a dead end host (as they are with diseases like Brucella) but rather a new opportunity for survival.

The deadly nature of the virus in apes and humans, then might be like an insurance policy. Like a retirement portfolio, a diversified package of stocks will keep you alive in retirement much better than a portfolio with a single stock. Work has been done on pathogens which infect multiple species, and, depending on the nature of the pathogen, species diversity can either work for or against the survival of the pathogen.[11-13]

In the case of Ebola, there is no real evidence that humans play a role in sustaining transmission, but blood and predation could be sustaining something like Brucella or Q Fever in the wild.

Now, in this article, I have rambled on and bored you to death (and bless you if you made it this far) but I have to point out that I am under no illusions that pathogens act consciously, though I have like many of my colleagues present it as such. Actually, no living thing really does have a long term plan outside of its narrow goals of producing offspring. But new opportunities for transmission do present new opportunities for the long term evolutionary survival or a biological entity. These lucky occurrences are not consciously sought out, but rather enable the pathogen to do what it does successfully.

It must be said that the ecology of Ebola is somewhat of a mystery. Not much work has been done on the subject, as the pathogen hides out in some of the most inaccessible areas of the planet, and conflict and political instability in places like the Central African Republic and Northern Uganda prevent researchers from doing extensive work on the pathogen.

1. Stan D: Ebola and Fruit Bats. Clinical Infectious Diseases 2006, 42(5):V.
2. Olival KJ, Islam A, Yu M, Anthony SJ, Epstein JH, Khan SA, Khan SU, Crameri G, Wang L-F, Lipkin WI et al: Ebola virus antibodies in fruit bats, bangladesh. Emerging infectious diseases 2013, 19(2):270.
3. Hayman DTS, Yu M, Crameri G, Wang L-F, Suu-Ire R, Wood JLN, Cunningham AA: Ebola virus antibodies in fruit bats, Ghana, West Africa. Emerging infectious diseases 2012, 18(7):1207.
4. Kumulungui B, Leroy EM, Swanepoel R, Gonzalez J-P, Pourrut X, Rouquet P, Yaba P, Paweska JT, Délicat A, Hassanin A: Fruit bats as reservoirs of Ebola virus. Nature 2005, 438(7068):575.
5. Vogel G: Infectious disease. Are bats spreading Ebola across sub-Saharan Africa? Science (New York, NY) 2014, 344(6180):140.
6. Hayman DTS, Emmerich P, Yu M, Wang L-F, Suu-Ire R, Fooks AR, Cunningham AA, Wood JLN: Long-term survival of an urban fruit bat seropositive for Ebola and Lagos bat viruses. PloS one 2010, 5(8):e11978.
7. Groseth A, Feldmann H, Strong JE: The ecology of Ebola virus. Trends in microbiology 2007, 15(9):408.
8. Vogel G: Ecology. Tracking Ebola’s deadly march among wild apes. Science (New York, NY) 2006, 314(5805):1522.
9. Leroy EM, Rouquet P, Formenty P, Souquière S, Kilbourne A, Froment J-M, Bermejo M, Smit S, Karesh W, Swanepoel R et al: Multiple Ebola Virus Transmission Events and Rapid Decline of Central African Wildlife. Science 2004, 303(5656):387.
10. Walsh PD, Biek R, Real LA: Wave-like spread of Ebola Zaire. PLoS biology 2005, 3(11):e371.
11. Renwick AR, White PCL, Bengis RG: Bovine tuberculosis in southern African wildlife: a multi-species host–pathogen system. Epidemiology and Infection 2007, 135(4):529.
12. Dobson A, Meagher M: The population dynamics of brucellosis in the Yellowstone National Park. Ecology 1996, 77(4):1026.
13. Dobson A: Population Dynamics of Pathogens with Multiple Host Species. The American Naturalist 2004, 164(S5):S64.

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