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Ebola, Secret Serums and Me

Ebola is no laughing matter. Except, of course, for Monsanto.

During the first months of the growing Ebola outbreak in West Africa, other than on NPR it was hard to find any American thoughtful media coverage of this historic public health tragedy. In mid-July I attributed this apathy to several factors: the “otherness” of Africans; a sense that “it couldn’t happen here;” compassion fatigue, especially regarding Africa and Africans; and our own American disinterest in developing and supporting public health infrastructures. Still today, this kind of “reporting” goes uncritiqued in the mainstream media: “Apparently, the Ebola virus now enveloping three West African nations wouldn’t have developed into an outbreak if not for the people’s ignorance and belief in witchcraft.” I’m hard-put deciding what appalls me most: The not-so-thinly-veiled racism and xenophobia (“people’s ignorance”), the uninformed dismissal of traditional healing practices (“witchcraft”) that effectively treat many illnesses and that are available before and after foreign aid workers swoop in, or the failure to recognize the role of poverty, malnutrition and deforestation in making a region ripe for the spread of disease.

But that’s old news. Ebola has finally grabbed American headlines with two new developments. First, two Americans working in Africa have become infected and – with the help of super-advanced aviation technology – have been flown back to the United States. Second, these two Americans are being treated with a wonder drug “secret serum” that “likely saved” them.

Now we Americans may not care about water purification or sewage treatment systems, but we sure do love secret serums. Hollywood has made millions from that plot line. Indeed, secret serums are such a shoo-in that I’m thinking of writing a blockbuster script about a secret serum that cures poverty (or at least my own poverty!).

But Ebola is no laughing matter. Except, of course, for the pharmaceutical companies poised to profit when the highly touted secret serum goes on the market.

Let me be clear. I am delighted to see that a medication that may cure Ebola is in the pipelines. And I am thrilled to see that the two Americans who received the serum seem to be recovering. But we’d be putting our heads in the sand to think that an untested drug used on two otherwise healthy and well-nourished people who received the highest quality care at every step of the way means much of anything in regard to the realities on the ground in West Africa. We can’t celebrate the great achievement in developing a potential cure for Ebola without considering the legacy that helped Ebola emerge and spread.

Poverty and environmental degradation — all too often the consequences of global economic policies — set the stage for outbreaks of disease. Deforestation with herbicides such as Agent Orange and RoundUp facilitate the spread of disease. Unlike traditional methods of weed control in which farmers and gardeners selectively remove particular plants in order to allow room for the desired crop to thrive, these herbicides typically are spray bombed from airplanes, indiscriminately wiping out plant growth over large areas and often enter the respiratory systems of the people who live in those areas. While the jury is still out, prominent zoologists and virologists hypothesize that emergent infectious diseases such as Ebola may jump from animal to human populations when eco-systems are disrupted, causing new intensities of human – animal contact. According to Nathan D. Wolfe of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, “Human activities that occur in lowland tropical forests, such as ecotourism, logging, and the hunting of wild vertebrates have the potential to increase the frequency of microbial emergence.” Coupled with the densely populated living quarters in urban settings that allow for diseases to spread quickly, and malnourished bodies that are less able to fight off infection, the Ebola outbreak seems almost predictable.

I’m not a big believer in conspiracies. I tend to think that just like us good guys, the bad guys are too busy in-fighting to pull off super-duper clandestine hoaxes. And I believe most people who work for even the greediest large corporations rarely intend to hurt others — but their bosses have certainly benefited from it. We need to recognize that the chemicals that made West Africa fertile for the spread of Ebola were highly profitable for the West, and the new miracle drugs to cure Ebola promise to be equally profitable. In these days of giant multi-national corporations it’s virtually impossible to parse out who manufactures what. But from my outsider sociologist perspective what I see is this: Poison the earth with herbicides and when the soil is ruined for everyone else, there’s even more money to be made patenting and selling GMO seeds that can grow in soil no longer suited to traditional agricultural and horticultural techniques. Convince mothers in poor countries to buy infant formula so that mom can come work at their poverty-wage factory, and then sell antibiotics when baby becomes sick because mom can’t afford clean water to mix the formula. Push cigarettes (especially in poor neighborhoods, as R.J. Reynolds does with its Kool brand cigarettes) and acquire Kentucky Bioprocessing to develop post-exposure Ebola serum.

So, on the unlikely chance that my secret serum blockbuster doesn’t work out, here’s another idea. Maybe I’ll start a company that entices people into buying tons and tons of sugary snacks. I’ll have my day-shift workers produce the snacks at factories I’ll build in states where my friendly congressmen and senators have eliminated worker safety regulations and labor unions. Savvy entrepreneur that I am, I’ll have my night-shift workers produce diabetes medication that all of those eaters of my sugary foods will need to take for their rest of their lives. And, just to cover my bases, I’ll require my workers to switch between twelve-hour day and twelve-hour night shifts. That way I can be sure that during any given twenty-four hour period a bunch of them will need pills to be able to sleep or pills to be able to stay awake. With my profits from those pills I think I’ll build a privately owned prison to house all of those criminals caught using illicit uppers or downers. In the crowded prison, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases will easily spread, expanding the market for the antibiotics produced in the factories I’ll open up in countries that don’t have pesky things like minimum wages. Oh – and just to dot my ‘i’s and cross my ‘t’s, I’ll be sure that the prison canteen sells my sugary snacks at twice the price at which they are sold on the open market.

I love it when a plan comes together!

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