Archive for September, 2012

The tribe that eradicated rinderpest…

The Karamoja region in northern Uganda is one of pastoral communities and closely dispersed ethnic groups that rely on livestock for their livelihood. It is within a semi-arid place like this that economies based on meat, milk, and blood from cattle thrive. In communities such as this one, cattle plague will always be the number one fear.

The morbillivirus rinderpest goes by many names — cattle plague in the old english or “loleoo” as the Karamojong say. Across the globe, thanks to a concerted effort of large international organizations, rinderpest has been eradicated. The disease was detected and confirmed for the last time in Kenya in 2001 — an eradication more than 70 years in the making. And when it got down to the final stages it was the local herders in those hard to reach areas that made the decisive difference.

Africa had always lagged behind the global eradication effort, due — in part — to small reservoirs of infection that persisted in the remote and marginalized herds of the agro-pastoralists. It was becoming evident that if rinderpest was to be eradicated a more nuanced approach would be needed. In a paper published today in Science, authors analyse the essential role of Africa’s nomadic herders in ridding the world of rinderpest and hope the lessons learned will translate to other livestock diseases across the developing world.

“the most dreaded bovine plague known, belonging to a select group of notorious infectious diseases that have changed the course of history.”

Rinderpest — a relative of the human measles virus of which it was most likely the precursor  — is a disease unlike most others. No one disease can claim to be at the root of the founding of the entire veterinary profession. It is a disease that can be linked to the landmarks of history — the fall of the Roman Empire, the conquest of Christian Europe by Charlemagne, the colonization of Africa, and even the French Revolution (although it shares that fame with an Icelandic volcano).

Rinderpest arrived in Africa in the late 19th century, setting off the first great African pandemic. It spread from the Indian to the Atlantic Ocean, quickly and in both domestic and wild animals, reaching southern Africa just as the Anglo-Boer War was about to ignite in 1896.

The pandemics of Africa have been one of a mosaic of flaring epidemics, infecting an reinfecting like school children on the playground. As pandemics died down, Africa was left with scars in the form of pockets of infection from which arose further periodic epidemics. By 1918 cattle plague grew like untendered weeds across and throughout all the colonies of West Africa. It’s surge continued unabated, southward, towards the country now known as Zambia. The promise of another pandemic in southern Africa was evident. At the turn of the 20th century, Abyssinia threatened neighbours like Sudan by harbouring the disease. Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan were continuously in harms way and continually and periodically infecting Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi like contagious school children.

Uganda’s encounter with rinderpest has lasted ever since then, and it’s last persisting rinderpest reservoir in the cattle of the Karamajong people ended in 1994.

“within the power of man to eradicate infection from the earth”

Rinderpest is only the second infectious disease to have been globally eradicated (and the first livestock disease). It was Louis Pasteur’s claim that it was “within the power of man to eradicate infection from the earth”. Indeed, after smallpox this seemed possible. Perhaps today it is a different story. The resolution that declared the end of smallpox came at the 33rd World Health Assembly in Geneva on May 8th, 1980. It declared the end to mankind’s suffering from a disease that was feared more than any of the other great pestilences — a disease, during the cold war, the Russians feared more than an American invasion. The last case of smallpox was registered only 3 years and 5 months after the world decided to go after it — a dramatic demonstration in achievement. Back then, the question of if mankind should bring about the death of a disease (another species) was as much a philosophical debate as a scientific one. Could mankind do it? Should we do it? An ethical debate that doesn’t seem to exist anymore.

Rinderpest joined a relatively small list of diseases that the world targeted for eradication, including malaria and yellow fever. Rinderpest seemed like an easy an obvious target. The nature of the virus seemed so appealing with all viruses belonging to a single serotype that would allow a one-vaccine-fits-all approach that would confer lifelong immunity.

“The technical research to develop a thermostable rinderpest vaccine required 2 years to complete, but the social innovation to capture the benefit required more than a decade”

However, as is always the case, the reality of the situation proved much more complicated. With smallpox, no one was left behind. The final arduous distance of rinderpest eradication was a measure of determination more than anything else. One that saw the virus entrenched in those remote parts of Africa, just like it had done before during colonial times. Regions with weak governance, poor security, and little infrastructure presented shelter for the disease.

The problem had always been that eradication attempts would fail, time and time again. Failing less through technical incompetence but more as a result of waning enthusiasm and bureaucratic stagnancy. In the 1970s, with rinderpest again reduced to small pockets of infection, the completion of eradication was left to national governments to handle individually through annual vaccination of calves. With the lost sense of urgency rinderpest resurged.

The key to success this time round had a basis in a social change much more than in any technological magic bullet. Although, it is through the magic bullet that the doors to social change were opened. It was the development of a thermostable vaccine — a rarity among diseases of the developing world. Usually, vaccines require a temperature controlled supply chain in order to get it from where it is produced to where it is needed. This cold chain can often be a logistical nightmare.

In 1981, the development of a thermostable rinderpest vaccine was identified as a research priority. The result, after just 4 short years, was a vaccine that you can store at 37°C for more than 8 months — Thermovax.

Suffice it to say, the thermostable vaccine threw out the rulebook and tore apart the existing dynamic. Suddenly, what was once a top-down bureaucratic-like dictation became a more flexible interchange between those on the ground and experts. The mode of service delivery was changed for the better. And in a stroke, the most remote of areas were now up for grabs.

But that was only half the revolution.

“The reluctance of researchers to champion the process of social change accompanying the deployment of new technologies might in part explain why many products of research fail to have impact”

Tom Olaka, a community animal health worker in Karamajong, was part of a vaccination campaign in remote areas that led to the virus’ final curtain. A different kind of vaccine allowed more and more health workers like Tom to venture into remote areas by foot, animal transport, or by bicycle. Not only that, it allowed local herders to be brought into the mix (the other half of the revolution). There was a realisation that existing veterinary knowledge — hidden in plain sight with the local herdsmen whose cattle is their livelihood — could be leveraged to finally eradicate the disease.

A realisation that seems obvious if you think about it, and if you know where to look for the clues. The vocabulary of livestock dependent communities usually includes terms to cover clinical syndromes as well as specific signs and symptoms of disease. The Nuer of South Sudan have 39 separate terms to describe the colour of a cow.

And so, it was in synergy with the local herdsmen that allowed veterinary personnel to interact at a grassroots level to more effectively target control measures. Everything from the sizes of cattle herds, their location, seasonal movements, and the optimum time for vaccination became essential in these remote areas. Researchers state that community-based vaccination programs such as these helped achieve herd immunity levels greater than 80% and were at least as effective as the best public veterinary service programs in Africa conducted in more accessible areas.

This is the relatively unknown field of participatory epidemiology, that has helped find and target disease in areas where other conventional methods have failed. It is now being applied to other diseases such as Rift Valley fever, highly pathogenic avian influenza, and foot-and-mouth disease in countries such as Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Indonesia and Afghanistan.

In May of 2011 loleeo was declared eradicated by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), thanks in no small part to the local tribes and herdsmen.

Image — source, source

Originally appearing in Australian Science

Jeffrey C. Mariner,James A. House, Charles A. Mebus, Albert E. Sollod, Dickens Chibeu, Bryony A. Jones, Peter L. Roeder, Berhanu Admassu, Gijs G. M. van ’t Klooster (2012). Rinderpest Eradication: Appropriate Technology and Social Innovations Science, 337 (6100), 1309-1312 : 10.1126/science.1223805


Weekly Science Picks…

This week on Australian Science Magazine, I go through some of the week’s best science blogs and articles. Or, at least, those I found of special note. This week there was something known as ENCODE that consumed the blogosphere. I have chosen to ignore all ENCODE-related stories. Enjoy.

“La rentrée!”

First week of September. In Paris, it’s when the city reignites again, everyone comes back from holiday and gets back to work, and — more importantly — kids go back to school. In celebration of “le bon retour” my first pick comes from right here on Australian Science. Kelly Burnes’ musings on the lack of imagination in science education in the US.

“Let’s think about the role of imagination in science. The process of imagination is on display everywhere in an early childhood classroom. But by the time they reach middle school, students seem to burn out and tire of science. Tired of memorizing facts and figures they see no point in bothering to retain because they will never use that information again. They see no purpose for being able to regurgitate that Cu is the symbol for the chemical element of copper; that 454 grams equals 1 pound; that kinetic energy is defined as the work needed to accelerate a body of a given mass from rest to its stated velocity. All of this information could be looked up if it were required in the future. Where is the imagination? What is driving the curiosity?”

Be sure to look out for the next one that explores how Australia teaches science.

Second, as we love our space science here on “Australian Scientific”, comes a story on how Voyager 1 — that time capsule sent out into the heavens to be mankind’s calling card — might not be a far out in space as we think. Kelly Oakes on Scientific American (see what I did there?) explains why.

“The Voyagers, 1 and 2, are right at this moment speeding away from us towards interstellar space. But a paper out in Nature today reports that, despite recently showing signs that suggest the spacecraft is about to leave (any minute now!), Voyager 1 could still be well inside the solar system. By now, scientists expected Voyager 1 to have reached the heliopause – the boundary between the solar system and the rest of space. The solar wind emitted from the sun is what defines the reach of the solar system. Interstellar space has its own medium that pushes back against the solar wind. Where the two meet, at the edge of the solar system, scientists expect the solar wind to be deflected from its usual path. But Voyager 1 is not yet showing such a change.”

It’s hard not to be moved by the simple fact that we sent a piece of humanity out into the unknown. The Voyagers, that Golden Record, and everything contained within leads me to the next logical question: shouldn’t we be sending our genome out into space? Why not? Maybe the genome of every living creature on this Earth (resurrected mammoths included) in some sort of sci-fi Noah’s Ark? Perhaps a topic for another day and another more in-depth blog post.

Next, the Supreme Overlord of Global Health, one William Henry “Bill” Gates, has given money to seek out and monitor the internet-based anti-vaccine and denialist misinformation that is rampant. Bill and his Foundation come under a lot of criticism. I suppose when you’re at the top everyone’s a critic. But the fact remains that without his billions no one would care about the most impoverished, and the diseases we never hear about (neglected tropical diseases). Orac on ScienceBlogs has a great post on the anti-vaxxers out to portray the Almighty Gates as some sort of… well, Almighty Evil.

“Oddly enough, it took several days for this meme to find its way to the ultimate wretched hive of scum and antivaccine quackery (the one that beats even the Huffington Post on that score), Age of Autism, which basically posted an excerpt from Ji’s post with a link to it. Be that as it may, the antivaccine crankosphere is now in full lather about this grant and other Gates Foundation initiatives in a way they haven’t been since they tried to claim that Bill Gates was in favor of a global eugenics program in which vaccines would be the means of reducing the global population. It’s such a brain dead take on the matter that it’s probably worth briefly explaining again, so that you don’t have to go and look it up again.”

As I said in a tweet, it would be easier and cheaper to nuke the Huffington Post.

Freelance science writer Esther Nakkazi, reporting from Uganda, has a great feature up on SciDev on the science cafés that are becoming more and more popular across Africa.

“The meeting point in the hut is the malwa pot. On a typical warm Sunday afternoon, music booms and a small television sitting on a pile of old furniture shows lightly-clad girls dancing to bolingo Congolese music. Arguments are usually about politics — or girls — and the voices of those around the pot get gradually louder, punctuated by sips of malwa. Except on one day a month, when the venue becomes a science café. Then there are more people than usual — and not because of the free malwa. “Today we shall discuss cervical cancer, and a vaccine, in the science café,” says Tiperu, as she refills the pot with hot water.”

This is a great thing to read. All too often stories that come out of Africa have the same old western-facing point of view to it. Stories of poverty and strife, and how every African country is in turmoil. When the little-known fact is that it is simply not the case.

There were many more stories, blogs and articles in and around the blogosphere. But those were some of my best. Next week there’ll be a new collection of links from another of my esteemed writer colleagues here on Australian Science. So to end, I shall leave you all with Last Word On Nothing’s Ann Finkbeiner on another take on those naive and not-so-naive questions science writers ask.

“The all-time best was over a nice business dinner full of wine and charm, and the astronomer said philosophically, “You could almost say that the future is a Taylor expansion of the past.”   I said, “What’s a Taylor expansion?”  And he said, “Oh you know, you take the first derivative and then the second derivative and so on.”  And I couldn’t help myself, I said, “What’s a first derivative?”    He said — poor guy, it just slipped out — “How did you get so far with so little fuel?”

I took it as a compliment.  I really think he meant it as one.”

Image — source

Originally appearing in Australian Science

One, plus one…

This month scienceleftuntitled turns a year old (well, 1 year and one month old). A milestone of persistence in itself if nothing else. Starting out as a output to flex writing muscles has grown into perhaps something more serious.

If scienceleftuntitled were a kangaroo, it would be a joey…

If it were a wedding anniversary, it would be paper…

It it were born to a woman of sub-Saharan African descent, it would probably be a girl

If it were a country, it would probably be south Sudan…

If it were an African-American born in Chicago, it would have a 14 in a 1000 chance of dieing before it turned 1 (on a par with the West Bank)…

If it were born in Chad, it would have only 47 more years left…

If it were a koala, it would still be a joey…

So there you have it… One, plus one month.

Alien encounters and the man from Grenada…

The month of August indeed belonged to the tiny rover that could — Curiosity. We were all hooked right from the landing and until those first images of the red planet were beamed back. Not even could spoil it for us. We revelled in everything in between, from the missed high-fives, peanuts, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s conversation with the rover, to — yes, unfortunately —’s new single being broadcast from the surface. Curiosity even spawned this generation’s cultural hallmark that is the fake twitter account. If there is any one milestone that denotes you’ve reached a certain level of cultural status… it’s the fake twitter account. From Mrs Rupert Murdoch to dead literary figures, the fake twiteratti are just as important as the real ones.

In an odd roundabout way, all of this got me thinking about a bizarre event that happened in 1977.

The United Nations debating such topics as aliens and extra-terrestrial encounters of any kind seems like something confined to the annals of science fiction. And yet, the most significant debate any international body has had on the prospect of alien encounter happened at the 32nd session of the United Nations General Assembly, for reasons unbeknown to me and probably many at the committee.

Member nations and delegations convened at the 32nd session of the General Assembly to listen to the man from Grenada, Sir Eric M. Gairy, the Prime Minister and Minister for External Affairs of Grenada (evidently taking his title to its farthest logic conclusion — what could be more external than space?).

He began with a reading from the Bible — Psalm 100, then launching into an engaging speech that touched on freedom and independence of nations, human rights, wars and conflicts. It quickly took on another flavour. The smallest nation in the UN (at the time) had centre stage and was determined to make the most of it. Mr. Gairy began to speak of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) with the same unabashed enthusiasm he was getting a reputation for.

He concluded by recommending that not only the UN take it seriously but they should set up a department to study UFOs. The UN already had a space outfit — the Office of Outer Space Affairs, initially created in 1958 as a small expert unit within the Secretariat to service the ad hoc Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. This unit, in light of the man from Grenada’s stirring speech, was tasked to prepare a document on issues related to “messages to extra-terrestrial civilizations”, an area of work that the UN has largely forgotten about since then.

The UN’s deliberations on the matter had the unfortunate timing of being around the same time as the messages on the two Voyager spacecrafts were launched in August and September of 1977. Voyager carried the first work of art towards the edges of the Solar System. Today, Voyager 1 is 18 billion kilometres from Earth.

“As the Secretary-General of the United Nations, an Organization of 147 Member States who represent almost all of the human inhabitants of the planet Earth, I send greetings on behalf of the people of our planet. We step out of our Solar System into the universe seeking only peace and friendship; to teach if we are called upon; to be taught if we are fortunate. We know full well that our planet and all its inhabitants are but a small part of this immense universe that surrounds us, and it is with humility and hope that we take this step.”

Why did the man from Grenada decide that alien encounters were of sufficient importance to bring it up at a UN General Assembly? Who knows. Gairy’s fascination with the alien and extra-terrestrial would eventually be his political undoing. On March 12th 1979 he left Grenada for more talks about UFOs with the UN. The very next day, Maurice Bishop, of the opposition party “New Jewel Movement”, took control of Grenada in a coup. Gairy subsequently went into exile in the US for five years, and though he eventually returned home, he and his party never managed a return to power.

So in 1977 the United Nations took the possibility of extra-terrestrial life seriously, perhaps for one of the only times in its history, thanks, in small part, to that man from Grenada.

Image — source

Originally appearing in Australian Science

Dominik M, & Zarnecki JC (2011). The detection of extra-terrestrial life and the consequences for science and society. Philosophical transactions. Series A, Mathematical, physical, and engineering sciences, 369 (1936), 499-507 PMID: 21220276

Othman M (2011). Supra-Earth affairs. Philosophical transactions. Series A, Mathematical, physical, and engineering sciences, 369 (1936), 693-9 PMID: 21220292

The rise in representation of non-human entities…

It happened over ten years ago. Jimmy was incarcerated against his will, held in a cage, isolated, and denied the basic freedom he deserved. A Habeas Corpus request was put in on his behalf. A long ordeal involving lawyers and various international organisations.

It happened again last year, in San Diego USA, Tilikum, Katina, Kasatka, Ulises and Corky were all held captive. A lawsuit was filed at a federal court, declaring that they were being held as slaves in violation of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution (the amendment that abolished slavery and involuntary servitude after the American Civil War).

One simple fact made these two cases unique — none of the subjects were human. Jimmy was a Great Ape. Tilikum, Katina, Kasatka, Ulises and Corky were all orcas. Those were not the first, and certainly not the last.

In 2005, a public prosecutor, Dr. Heron Santana, was involved in the landmark, bench-setting case that would provide the framework for all those that came after. As was the case with Jimmy, a Habeas Corpus was demanded for a female chimpanzee — Suíça, 23 years old, who had lived in a zoo for four years. What transpired made Suiça the first animal to be recognized as a subject in a court of law. In the end, the Habeas Corpus was approved — unfortunately, it was on the day after she was found dead in her cage.

Animal activism had always existed before then. But perhaps that was the spark the trend needed. Indeed, numerous examples now exist, including perhaps the most well known — the World Declaration on Great Primates, that proposes the extension of rights allowance in an equal way to all great primates: human beings, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans, and identifying the three basic conditions to the relationship between humans and great primates — the right to life, individual freedom, and prohibition of torture.

With chimps and other great apes the difference is clear — “the only difference is that they do not talk” explained Pedro Ynterian, biologist, activist and founder of a chimp rehabilitation sanctuary near Sao Paulo.

But the question and debate goes further than one of simple animal activism. The question points towards eventual representation of all non-human entities. The possibility that our rules of law and humanity will need to be rewritten is becoming more apparent.

What we witnessed with Suíça, Jimmy, Tilikum, Katina, Kasatka, Ulises and Corky is that there is a slow convergence of two seemingly distant traditions —  democratic theory and animal rights. Take that convergence to its furthest logical conclusion and what you have is the possibility of including non-human nature within our human spheres democracy.

In reality, this is nothing new.

Half of democracy is participation… the other half is representation.

The boundaries of our democracy have never had any set limits and have never been static. At any point in time throughout our history certain categories of people have never been shown inclusion within the democratic circle. Women, ethnic minorities, blacks, gays. Another spin on this central theme and we can include children and young adults on that list (where they are not afforded democratic rights, their parents are used as a proxy).

The affording of democracy and human justice to non-human entities is not really anything new, but it is certainly a theme gathering momentum, especially in this age of sustainable living. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) — a body whose sole purpose is “to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of knowledge in climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic impacts” — is essentially a body that speaks on behalf of another non-human entity (mother Earth’s climate). The science pertaining to that feeds up to policy and governments and nations create and forge laws on behalf of the world we live in (at least, that is the idea).

Biodiversity is perhaps the next great frontier of representation — the other sentient beings on this planet, endangered or otherwise have certain bodies and groups that lobby and speak on their behalf. In June, we learnt that a certain number of species within the Brazilian rainforest are on the brink of extinction. The data presented in that paper compels the Brazilian government to do something about it.

So why not extend our laws of human nature and democracy to all non-human entities? Historically, discrimination on the grounds of sex and skin colour are purely arbitrary characteristics on which to base the attribution of rights. In this day and age, is the species boundary any less arbitrary? Perhaps it is.

It seems genuine to argue how can we bestow democracy on those that do not partake in it? Since, one tenet of democracy insists that you partake in it.

Democracy, first and foremost, is concerned with the representation of interests.

Women were represented by their husbands, slaves were considered property, and children’s rights were deferred to parents. In all cases a proxy was used. A proxy that, however misguided at times, represented their interests. So in the case of nonhuman entities, it’s not a stretch of the imagination to find a scenario where partaking in democracy isn’t as important as representing their interests. And certainly a case that doesn’t require the non-human entity to be bestowed with any intelligence or consciousness.

But what would a democratic non-human world look like. To be honest I do not know, but certainly one that needs more thought. But perhaps it would be a good way to frame the “sustainable living” generation we and our policy makers are now embarking on.

Imagine a future where a political candidate is campaigning for votes. But he’s not campaigning on behalf of his constituency, you, or a certain voting block of people, he’s not campaigning to garner the republican vote, or the leftist vote… he’s campaigning on behalf of graphs, tables, and data showing you why a non-human entity’s voice counts more than yours. Scientific evidence speaks on their behalf. His case is compelling. Afterall, our science has always been presented as having direct and privileged access to the truth, unhindered by the erring hand of humans or non-humans alike. The same way a politician will speak, with unearnt God-given authority, of and for his constituents.

Science, and most importantly, scientific evidence plays a vital role in the societal and political discourse — giving new meaning to the phrase “no science, no truth, no evidence, no democracy.”

Image — source

[No authors listed] (2011). Great ape debate. Nature, 474 (7351) PMID: 21677704

What had I twaught…

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