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Ebola: Warning, Prelude or Endgame

The next meeting of the 17 Group will be held onWednesday the 5th of November at 7 pm in unit 6 at 20 Drury St, West End.
It will be addressed by Merv Partridge, with expert medical assistance from Dr Simon Murray, on the topic “Ebola: Warning, Prelude or Endgame?”
Short summary:
If you ask a Californian when the NBO is coming most will tell you “The Next Big One? It’s overdue. Just a matter of time”. Ask the same question of an epidemiologist and many will give the same answer. But they’re not talking Earthquake, they’re not talking geological time and they’re not talking thousands of casualties.

In “The Great Disruption” ever optimistic environmentalist Paul Gilding recently argued that we humans can meet the challenges posed by growth in population, resource consumption and carbon pollution. We’ll have to pass through a great disruption on the way to a new stability and we won’t really mobilize as for a war on an overstretched way of living until we have the crap scared out of us by one or more catastrophic events in the more developed countries. The Fukishima nuclear disaster spurred a conservative Germany to mobilize for a twenty year transition to a renewable energy economy. Apart from Germans determined to stake a place as twenty-first century heroes, the rest of the West seems comfortable keeping its crap where it is.

Will the Ebola outbreak in West Africa come as an enematic warning, pushing us into a global mobilization? If it burns out in Africa with or without the aid of unproven vaccines it will surely trigger a much needed boost in global health systems. If it gets a grip in Europe or America before burnout then fear may focus attention on the blowbacks of 7 billion humans leaning ever harder into the previously balanced domains of wild creatures. We may learn. We may mobilize for real change.

Like HIV-1, Ebola is an invisible wild creature that has co-evolved with forest mammals in an ancient relatively commensal relationship. Like HIV, which has killed 30 million humans to date and infects 30 million more, Ebola has proved capable of “jumping” the species barrier, of “spilling over”. The match of a virus and an unfamiliar host is precarious for both. In the case of Ebola it is usually fatal for the host and, in all known outbreaks to date, apparently fatal for the virus as well. A virus is the most efficient survival machine known. It depends on the enslavement of host cells to reproduce its heirs. The heirs in turn need to infect new hosts at least as fast as the former host dies off or their line will be extinguished. HIV has succeeded where Ebola may not. HIV evolves rapidly and has adapted effectively to the human host – it kills slowly, sheds prolifically and so spreads its heirs widely without fanfare. In the distant future HIV may settle into a non-lethal relationship with humans, as its ancestors have with monkeys over millions of years. Too little is known about Ebola.

In December 2013 the Zaire strain of the Ebola virus embarked on a long zoonotic journey through thousands of human hosts and billions of human cells. Of the zillions of viral heirs of that first zoonotic infection just over 10,000 have found new human hosts. Like the Terminator it will not stop. Its only mission is to pass copies of its tiny protein wrapped RNA to a new susceptible host. This current epidemic has infected and killed more than all previous recognized outbreaks combined. Why? Well, it has escaped the forests and gained access to the big game –cities and a rapid global transportation network giving it potential access to 7 billion accessible hosts.

We 7 billion now have an opportunity to learn from precedent … or not. Microbes devastated human populations connected via the busy trade and transportation networks of the Athenian and Roman Empires, the Mongol Empire from China to Europe, Medieval and Early Modern Europe and then of the entire globe in the early (Spanish Flu) and late (AIDS) twentieth century. These epidemics not only killed, they also evoked sociecidal terror. Some provoked transformative social and political responses. We 7 billion inhabit a vast interdependent complexity; a modern global civilization, economically fragile but still voracious, with spreading conflicts feeding an escalating diaspora of desperate refugees. The Next Big One is likely to suck us into a protracted Endgame for civilization as we know it.

Let us hope we get off with a wake-up call at the expense of thousands and not millions; that Ebola is but a prelude to the Next Big One and not an Endgame for which only ruthless opportunistic minorities are prepared.
Short biographical notes on the speakers:

Bio: Speaker Merv Partridge has been a regular participant in 17 Group meetings. He graduated in Microbiology from the UQ in 1973. Inspired by the early work of Temin and Heubner (for which they eventually shared a Nobel Prize) he was invited to begin post graduate work on retroviruses at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research. After attending a specialist conference on Viral Oncogenesis at Springbrook his encounters with world class microbiologists turned his interest towards the philosophy, sociology and politics of science and technology. He jumped to Arts and graduated in philosophy and then completed post-grad studies in social planning and development. Along the way he lived in Brazil where he was offered a University job as a virus hunter in the Amazon – which he knocked back to his eternal regret (met a woman). He has taught sociology at several universities and now teaches Film, Television and New Media at QUT.

Bio: Dr. Simon Murray is a Brisbane GP. He has a Masters Degree in Environmental Medicine from the University of Queensland, has taught in the Medical School and is part of a team of doctors educating about the Health Effects of Global Warming. Simon will make sure Merv gets his facts straight and act as medical backup, resuscitating the fallen. Unfortunately, Simon is afflicted by a dry sense of humour which threatens to lighten the gravity of the topic.

Leon Davidovich was not at home when we called with our usual invitation, but some recently arrived Russian comrades, who appeared to be his latest guests, offered us vodka and assured us in attractively broken English that they had last seen him, at the same airport at which he had greeted them on their arrival, heading off with a rather dubious passport and a copy of Heart of Darkness in his hand towards an Air Africa desk. “He very international, very much help person” their most articulate member said. “We from Ukraine, not West Africa, just have arriving come” he added, as he appeared to indicate that they might all attend the meeting to “embracing progressive Australian people very much”.

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