- The Washington Times - Monday, May 25, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The news from Africa and the Third World is seldom good, and much of the bad news is about disease born of ignorance, superstition and primitive sanitation, news dispatched by a media addicted to tales of unrelieved gloom, certain doom and inevitable disaster.

We were all supposed to be dead by now from strange diseases reduced in the public prints to acronyms and bold initials — AIDS, SARS, MERS, swine flu, avian flu and most recently Ebola. These diseases are rightly feared, but in most places they’re diseases only of a tiny part of the population of a country or continent, often abetted by primitive custom.

Ebola is the real deal, a dark word that rolls easily off the tongue, redolent of sorcery and mystery, and a word short enough to fit neatly into almost any headline. When it kills, which is often, it kills quickly at the price of considerable pain and horror, though not inevitably, as the first dispatches from Africa said it would.

Controlling the spread of Ebola, being as highly contagious as it is, has not been easy since it emerged decades ago from the Ebola River valley. The authorities have had to contend with persistent tribal customs of ceremonial washing of the dead, often accompanied by widespread touching, handling and even kissing of infected corpses.

The latest figures, compiled by the World Health Organization, show that Ebola has infected 26,933 persons, mainly in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, and of those, 11,120 have died. The figures barely describe the dimensions of personal tragedy, which has taken entire villages in the remote and isolated back country, whole families in the cities, and even some of the doctors and nurses who have given their lives for their patients. The death rate, though horrific, turns out to be far less than the 95 percent predicted in the first dispatches out of Africa.

Now there’s a hint of good news from the medical laboratories. Like all good news from the laboratories, it comes with layers of caveats: it’s news of neither cure nor vaccine, and the good that might come of discovery lies in the future. It’s news about potential, not a magic bullet, but in the lab there’s a hit of silver, if not gold.

A new study demonstrates that a protein called Niemann-Pick C1 (or NPC-1) is critical for the Ebola virus to infect a host. “The science behind the concept of blocking the interaction between [the protein] NPC-1 and the virus is solid,” says Dr. John Dye Jr., one of the investigators at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Frederick, Maryland. “Now it is just a matter of powering through and identifying drugs that can inhibit NPC-1 and moving them forward.” Dr. Nye and Dr. Kartik Chandran, professor of microbiology and immunology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, were principal investigators of the study, published by the journal of the American Society for Microbiology.

Earlier studies have shown that Ebola virus enters host cells by binding directly to NPC-1, and that blocking the ability of the virus to bind with NPC-1 prevents Ebola infection.

There’s no scarcity of continuing bad news, though it’s not nearly as bad as it once was. The World Health Organization reports that the number of new Ebola cases has quadrupled in Sierra Leone and Guinea, which the government in Sierra Leone blames on “the selfish and shameful” people escaping quarantined densely populated slums.

In neighboring Guinea the government authorities blamed relatives of the dead who transport corpses to their home villages on public transportation for funerals and burial. By ancient village custom, families want to give victims a traditional burial to prepare their souls for the afterlife.

“It is regrettable that some families with the help of transport providers are dressing up cadavers and seating them upright between other passengers in a taxi,” says a police captain, “as though the person is still living, when in fact it’s sometimes the body of someone who has died from Ebola. Every day we are finding bodies in these conditions, and that’s what is spreading the contagion.”

The law prohibits transporting bodies of Ebola victims from one town to another, but an officer of an “anti-Ebola committee” says relatives frequently conceal or disguise bodies to slip them past the police to take them to their birthplace villages.

The latest figures from the World Health Organization show a spike in Guinea that puts the total at the highest in a month, just as the outbreak appeared to be fading. Neighboring Liberia has been declared “Ebola free,” and Sierra Leone reports only eight new cases in that month.

Ebola never made the jump to the developed nations, as the doom-criers suggested it would. We’re still not all dead.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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