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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.

Who should research benefit?

I’m reflecting on an interesting discussion that some of my colleagues and I had over dinner last night. We were discussing the Demographic Surveillance Program (DSS) that I am currently managing.

For those not familiar, DSS programs, generally speaking, do what you local city hall and health department do. They track births, deaths and migration and keep track of specific health outcomes such as cause of death and incidence of particular diseases. It’s pretty basic stuff, but outside the capacity of many developing countries, and the focus on health issues allows for deeper investigation of public health outcomes.

One of us, who is Kenyan, remarked that the DSS program needs to coordinate with the Kenyan government to satisfy specific data needs. I took issue with this idea.

First, as a program sponsored by a research institution, our number one priority should be the accommodation of research projects. A university receives public money to perform research projects which benefit and are directed by the scientists who run them.

Second, a research institution is not a development NGO that seeks to provide public services that countries are unwilling or unable to provide themselves. It is a fact that the Kenyan Government, like many African governments, has a poor record of providing public services. I would argue that while we should certainly offer results of our activities to the government and local stakeholders, that a university sponsored DSS should not be considered a substitute for that which governments should be doing themselves. The assumption is often that African government are incapable of doing things like tracking births and deaths, but the reality is that they are simply unwilling and the activities of NGOs often exacerbate this problem.

Third, government involvement in foreign sponsored research is a slippery slope. Many African governments are wholly or partially autocratic. They do not exist or function to benefit their people, but rather exist only to enrich themselves and maintain power. Academic research should, in no way, contribute to keeping autocrats in power and should operate independently from any political body. In fact, academia has a duty to question power both domestically and internationally. Unnecessarily submitting to government demands opens up a number of potentially problematic issues, including the suppression of results which are inconvenient to government bodies.

While research projects require government approval to function, the power of government to influence the course and outcomes of research should be limited. While many bureaucrats would take issue with this, the reality is we can always just go somewhere else.

Who pays for development?

I was just reading this on the Guardian’s Poverty Matters blog:

First, identify the most important issues. One of the main problems of the MDGs, as noted in countless analyses, was their failure to bring the major structural issues to the table. I know of no one who thinks that aid is the most important contribution that wealthier countries can make to development, but the vague terms of MDG eight allowed politicians to get away with aid promises (which in some cases they didn’t keep) rather than setting a bold agenda for transformational change in global financial governance, dealing with illicit financial flows, for example, taking bold steps towards international tax reform, and introducing fairer mechanisms for working out debt repayments.

Well, yeah, very true, but again this type of reporting skirts the issue of where those illicit flows are coming from and who took out the loans. The problem with the MDGs was that it failed to put any pressure on leaders of developing countries to stop being parasites. Worse yet, they didn’t allow for the provision and protection of basic individual rights to free expression, judicial rights and economic freedom, instead opting for a few vague and unverifiable targets which failed to address structural problems WITHIN developing countries.

In Kenya, at least, the government is bleeding the populace dry. Evidence from countries such as Botswana and Korea has shown that countries who want to develop can. The biggest obstacle (among all the other obstacles) to development is a lack of political will to do it.

To its credit, the article goes on to point out that domestic ag subsidies in wealthy countries are distorting the world market and preventing developing countries from being competitive on the world market. Eliminating these subsidies will be a real challenge, at least in the US. First, subsidies control price and market volatilities. The US electorate would go bonkers if the price of food went up and down like the price of corn does in developing countries. Second, Americans simply like subsidies and enjoy protecting agricultural interests at all levels. The right likes to pander to farmers for the rural vote while the left is somewhat bummed out because their favorite organic farms don’t have access to them. Though the left loves to pay lip service to ending ag subsidies, I can’t imagine they’d be all that sad if they were offered to their local hippie farmers. That’s speculation for another day, however, and I’m no expert on ag matters.

I hate to be pessimistic about development, but the barriers to progress are hobbled by forces both within and without developing countries and no one seems to be tackling the right issues to improve matters.

The need to look for more than just malaria

I was just reading a comment in the new Journal of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene “After Malaria is controlled, what next?”

Fortunately for all of our jobs, there is little to worry about. Malaria, as a complex environmental/political/economic public health problem, won’t be controlled anytime soon. As there’s no indication that many sub-Saharan countries will effectively ameliorate their political problems and also no sign that, despite the “Rising Africa” narrative, African countries will develop in such a way that economic rewards will trickle down to the poorest of the poor, malaria transmission will continue unabated. This is a horribly unfortunate outcome for the people, particularly small children, who have to live with malaria in their daily lives.

In all of the places it occurs, malaria is merely a symptom of a greater political and economic failure.

Indeed, we really know less about the causes of suffering and death in the tropics than many believe. Even vital statistics of birth and death are unrecorded in many areas of the world, much less the accurate causes of disease and death. Some diagnoses, such as malaria, dengue fever, and typhoid fever, are often ascribed to patients’ illnesses without laboratory confirmation. Under the shadow of the umbrella of these diagnoses, other diseases are lurking. I have found significant incidences of spotted fever and typhus group rickettsioses and ehrlichiosis among series of diagnostic samples of patients suspected to have malaria, typhoid, and dengue in tropical geographic locations, where these rickettsial and ehrlichial diseases were previously not even considered by physicians to exist.4–8 Control of malaria or dengue would reveal the presence and magnitude of other currently hidden diseases and stimulate studies to identify the etiologic agents.

This is the problem with our public health fascination with malaria. We are missing all of the other pathogens and conditions which case untold suffering in the poorest and most isolated communities. It can’t be the case that malaria acts in a box. In fact, it could be the case, that multiple pathogens coordinate their efforts to extract as many human biological and behavioral resources as possible to obtain maximum opportunities for reproduction and sustenance. A public health system only designed to look for and treat a limited window of diseases misses the opportunity to disrupt what is probably a vast ecological complex.

First, we have a problem of poor diagnostics. Facilities traditionally treat most fevers presumptively as malaria, dispensing drugs appropriate to that condition. However, conditions like dengue fever exhibit similar symptoms. While is it extremely likely that dengue is all over the African continent, particularly in urban areas, there is little ability to identify true dengue cases in the public health sector, and thus, in addition to mistreating patients, the extent of the disease burden is unknown. We cannot tackle large public health issues without proper data.

Second, we have the problem of all of the “known unknowns,” that is, we know for a fact that there’s more out there than we have data for but we also know (or at least I do) that there is a greater disease ecology out there. We know that many pathogens interact with one another for their mutual advantage or to haplessly effect significantly worse outcomes. The awful synergy of HIV and TB is just one example.

OK, I’m going to go and deal with my own pathogenic tenant which I think I’ve identified as an enteric pathogen of the genus Pseudomonas, which might have taken hold opportunistically through an influenza infection. This is complete speculation, however. Data quality issues prevent a reliable diagnosis!

Development as unfreedom….

Was reading Chris Blattman’s list of books that development people should read but don’t and found this in the Amazon description of “The Anti-Politics Machine: Development, Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho.”

Development, it is generally assumed, is good and necessary, and in its name the West has intervened, implementing all manner of projects in the impoverished regions of the world. When these projects fail, as they do with astonishing regularity, they nonetheless produce a host of regular and unacknowledged effects, including the expansion of bureaucratic state power and the translation of the political realities of poverty and powerlessness into “technical” problems awaiting solution by “development” agencies and experts.

Note that I do not harbor any ill will toward development or even, as a general rule, “technical solutions.” Having been involved with bed net distributions and having watched the outcomes of reproductive health interventions, for example, I can say that there are many positive outcomes of development projects. In my area, fewer kids are dying and women are becoming pregnant a whole lot less, decreasing the risk of maternal mortality.

Disclaimers aside, there is no doubt that development projects often fail for a number of reasons, the first of which is that leaders have no interest in seeing that they succeed. While leaders are indifferent to the outcomes, they happily take on the power that comes with them, embracing bureaucratic reforms, which are mostly just expansions of power at all levels of government.

This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, except that African countries never embraced many of the protections of individual rights which restrict the powers of the state. Independence movements in much of Africa was predicated on an eventual return of power to the majority. Not many (none?) of these movements sought to protect the rights of the minority, much less the individual. Thus, there is little restriction on the types of rules which may be created and since many of these development projects influence policy, development projects unwittingly feed into the autocracy machine.

Kenya: Movin’ on up

IMG_1372Currently, I’m staying in Mbita, a small fishing community in western Nyanza province, located along Lake Victoria. Sometimes, we can see Uganda, and Tanzania is just a stone’s throw away.

I’ve been coming here for close to three years, and I’m struck at the rapidity of change here. There used to be only two ferry trips a day to Luanda Port, where you can catch a minibus to Kisumu, Nyanza’s largest city. Now, there’s not only multiple trips a day, but also two ferries, a small one and a large one.

You can also catch a ferry to neighboring Mfangano island, a small but heavily populated place which was formerly mostly isolated from the mainland.

The power still comes on and off, but blackouts are shorter and more infrequent. There are multiple places to see music now, a direct result of people having more money. Local and national acts are taking advantage of Mbita’s increased affluence.

Mirroring much of Kenya, though, construction of a few “high rise” buildings has been completed, but it’s kind of unclear as to who is going to move in. “Mbita Towers” is mostly empty.

People look better, the cars are in better shape, there are more buses going to Kisumu and Nairobi and there is a larger variety of foods and goods available at the local market. This is due in part to the semi-completion of a road connecting nearby Homa Bay to Mbita. There are still a few rough spots between, but it’s mostly passable now. Someone told me that just four years ago it took two days to get from Nairobi to here, despite there being only 400 km between them.

No doubt, this isn’t due to the good graces of any particular development project at all, but rather to the increased affluence of Kenya as a whole. Kenyatta’s government would inexplicably love to credit the Chinese, and they should be credited for constructing some of the road infrastructure, but the real credit has to be given to the development of the domestic economy and Kenya’s status as the most liberal economy in the region.

Kenyans are increasingly not only connected with the world, but also to each other. Cell phones, for example, have allowed Kenyans greater mobility so that they can take advantage of money-making opportunities elsewhere, and mobile banking allows money to flow out of Nairobi, where it was traditionally concentrated.

Kenya still ranks low on “ease of doing business” indicators, and continues to be excessively bureaucratic. New rules seem to appear each day, the goals of which are often unclear and seem to be aimed only at corrupt officials on every level of government. A recent ban on tinted windows, supposedly aimed at terrorism, and an onerous highway speed limit of 80 km/h for small trucks, billed as reducing traffic fatalities, are providing a steady source of cash for hungry highway policemen. It’s worth noting that the latter rule doesn’t apply to SUV’s, the vehicle of choice for Kenya’s elite.

Fortunately, many people simply ignore the government and carry on like it doesn’t exist. This is particularly true out here. My taxi driver completely ignored the speed rules and sped on at 120 km/h. Of course, there’s not a policeman to be seen anywhere out here outside of the the local bar at 3 p.m. The relative peace out here makes them mostly unnecessary, anyway.

A sick mother will make a sick baby who becomes a sick adult

As much as we’d like to believe it, babies aren’t a blank slate. Babies not only bear the social and economic legacies of the families which produce the, but also the scars of a lifetime of immunological insults.

This week, a paper, “Does in utero Exposure to Illness Matter? The 1918 Influenza Epidemic in Taiwan as a Natural Experiment,” appeared in the journal of the National Bureau of Economic Research which tracks the long term effects of the 1918-1920 worldwide influenza pandemic.

Turns out that babies which were born to mothers in that period were, on average, shorter than people born in other years, had more developmental problems, and, possibly, suffered from long term problems of chronic disease.

This paper tests whether in utero conditions affect long-run developmental outcomes using the 1918 influenza pandemic in Taiwan as a natural experiment. Combining several historical and current datasets, we find that cohorts in utero during the pandemic are shorter as children/adolescents and less educated compared to other birth cohorts. We also find that they are more likely to have serious health problems including kidney disease, circulatory and respiratory problems, and diabetes in old age. Despite possible positive selection on health outcomes due to high infant mortality rates during this period (18 percent), our paper finds a strong negative impact of in utero exposure to influenza.

It’s interesting to me, in that it’s a study of health on one of Japan’s former colonies, but also because Taiwan’s indicators in 1918 were atrocious. More than a fifth of babies didn’t live to see their fifth birthday, deaths in childbirth were common and life was short. In other words, it’s a lot like a lot of African contexts today.

The long term outcomes of common developing world diseases have mostly been ignored. There is every reason to believe that one of the reasons African countries suffer economically is that people’s developmental trajectory is set before even exiting the womb. SO we’re fighting against not only a bleak economic past, but also against a constant legacy of infectious insults.

And to moms in the developed world…. get your flu shots.

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