Columnists Features

Engineering Ebola virus

By JULIUS LUNGU
ONCE again conspiracy theorists are busy at work; was the Ebola virus or disease ‘engineered’ in a lab or such places specifically to reduce on African population much in the same way that popular “theory” has over HIV and AIDS? Or simply put, an experiment gone horribly wrong? Is it a Biblical plague perhaps?
According to World Health Organisation (WHO), the definition of Ebola virus disease (EVD) or Ebola haemorrhagic fever (EHF) is a disease of humans and other primates caused by an Ebola virus.
Symptoms include, but not limited to, a fever, sore throat, muscle pain and headaches.  Typically, vomiting, diarrhoea and rash may follow with decreased function of the liver and kidneys.  Affected people may begin to bleed both internally and externally.
The virus may be acquired through contact with blood and bodily fluids of an infected person or animal.  Fruit bats are believed to carry and spread the virus.  No specific treatment of the disease is yet available.
The disease has a high risk of death, killing between 50 and 90 percent of those infected by the virus.  EVD is thought to have first been identified in Sudan (now South Sudan) and the Democratic Republic of Congo as early as 1976.  The latest outbreak in West Africa has so far claimed over 2,000 lives.
In Liberia, a country which has been worst hit by the latest outbreak, after years of war and endemic corruption, mistrust in government bureaucracy, conspiracy or indeed rumours have it that Ebola is simply a hoax, a way for the government to get more funds from international donors in order for the fat-cats to continue getting even fatter.
The government of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has obviously made strides in containing the Ebola disease and other fronts in the governance of the country whose fabric has been torn apart due to years of civil war.
Here at home we have heard conflicting statements, which can spur the spread of the Ebola disease.  What we need is a clear-cut policy and correct information dissemination and education of the masses (in all languages), particularly on traditional practices and the shaking of hands, hugging and so on and so forth.
Our neighbour to the north, the DR Congo, we are told, has recorded some casualties and so we need to be extra vigilant as a country.
Let us also use students to spread and educate the masses on a door-to-door campaign basis much the same way we do during national census outreach.  This way we reduce rumours and misunderstanding of the disease spiralling in more conspiratory theories.
Mind you, the conspiracy theorists have had a boost in the last two weeks or so, as it has emerged that forgotten deadly vials of ricin poison have been discovered in the United States laboratory after previously having confirmed that it was destroyed only to find that it is there stored somewhere not in a proper and safe manner.
If terrorists had to get their dirty hands on it, we would all be wiped out!  The same for vials of smallpox dating back to the 1950’s which was thought to have been eradicated; now that’s food for thought albeit for conspirators!
Where do engineers come into this equation? The area of diagnostics; from time immemorial when the humble thermometer was invented using mercury to the present-day computer axial tomography (CAT-Scan or simply CT Scan) equipment, engineers have played a vital role in diagnosing illnesses and diseases and continue to do so.
Ebola should not be any different.  For any disease, our medical colleagues will attest to the fact that early detection is key to treating any disease.
We have seen thermo-imaging scanners (fixed and hand-held) being used at airports and other points of entry/exit in order to perhaps detect high fever or temperature in possible carriers of the Ebola disease. This is not enough in itself because there are other diseases that can also present themselves in a similar manner such as malaria, for instance.
Engineering companies such as world-renowned Siemens, Philips and Fujitsu (to mention but a few) are market leaders in diagnostic equipment manufacture.
These firms should quickly do their best to come up with equipment that can isolate and determine the Ebola virus or indeed the disease so that specific treatment can be instituted.
In future, should we be talking about replacing our colleagues, I mean the doctors, with robots? I know this may sound controversial but it is already happening especially in areas such as precision or Nano surgery.  Personally I would not mind replacing some of the rude nurses with robots!
The author is an engineer and a Technical Director at JKL-Associates.

jklungu@engineer.com

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