5.19.2014

Deadly Viruses

In 1918 a deadly influenza virus swept over the globe. It infected 500,000,000 people and was responsible for the death of an estimated 50 to 100 million –3 to 5 percent of the world’s population. It was no doubt one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history. From time to time a severe virus infects a significant number of people in this country and elsewhere, but not anywhere like the 1918 Flu Pandemic, as it has become known.

Just yesterday there was a report of the arrival in this country of a new virus that spreads from person to person and is often fatal. It is known as the MERS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, that has so far infected three people in the US and many more in sixteen other countries. In Saudi Arabia alone, 157 have died from this virus. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports the virus is from the same family as the common cold and severe acute respiratory syndrome virus (SARS).

Early last month there was an outbreak of Ebola virus in Guinea. As of April 17th, over 200 cases had been reported, including 137 deaths. Liberia and Sierra Leone, both neighboring countries, have also reported Ebola cases. Research on its origin and treatment has just begun.


The outbreak of such a deadly disease is the subject of two films I saw recently—Contagion and Outbreak. Contagion deals with a killer virus that originated in Hong Kong, spread rapidly to Chicago and elsewhere in this country. A team of researchers was recruited (all played by well known actors) from the World Health Organization, the CDC and a professor in San Francisco. People were advised to wash their hands, avoid shaking hands, be mindful when you open doors in public places, or press elevator buttons, etc. The toll the virus takes upon an infected body is horrible to behold.

Outbreak opens deep in an African rain forest where a monkey has infected a small village, killing everyone who lived there. Again a team of researchers (played by an equally well-known cast of actors) descends upon the village in an effort to understand the source of the virus and contain it, insofar as possible. They are unsuccessful, as one of the disease carrying monkeys is imported to this country and escapes into a forested area close to a small town. Eventually most of residents who lived there are infected with the virus, whereupon the military is ordered to quarantine the town so that no one can leave.

Outbreak is the more significant of the two. It explores a complicated issue after the President, at the request of a sinister general in cahoots with a drug company, orders the military to bomb the town with a weapon that will destroy all its inhabitants. The issue that emerges from this order is the moral legitimacy of such an action, one that will kill a relatively small number of people to save millions of other individuals throughout the country.

In philosophy this is known as the trolley problem. In one variation of this hypothetical, you are standing by the side of a railway track as a train whose brakes have failed, approaches. You note that 5 people are tied to the tracks that will be killed unless you pull the switch you are standing by, sending the train to a sidetrack. Then you observe one person is tied to the sidetrack where you could send the train.

What do you do? Do stand by helpless as the train kills five people or divert it so that it only kills one?

The answer to this question is by no means simple and has been the subject of considerable philosophical debate. It is also the question set before the commander of the plane about to be sent to kill all the inhabitants of the quarantined town. Meanwhile, you are aware that researchers are working feverishly to find a vaccine that will destroy the virus.


5 comments:

Stefanie said...

I've seen both those movies though it's been long enough that the details, especially for Outbreak, are very fuzzy or nonexistent. There is a scifi show on TV right now called The 100 that deals with issues of killing a few so others might survive. It's TV so it doesn't get so very heady but it's an ongoing dilemma that keeps popping up in various forms which makes it interesting

Richard Katzev said...

Yes, the Trolley Problem is hot. How would you have responded in either situation--the train track or quarantined village dilemma?

Sheila Brifman said...

Dear Richard,
Is the trolley problem similar to the one viewed in "Sophie's Choice"?
When faced with such a problem, I seem to always waver between the 2 possible solutions. Perhaps my mind, in this process, is saving me from a painful and gut wrenching solution.

Sheila Brifman said...

Dear Richard,
Is the trolley problem similar to the one viewed in "Sophie's Choice"?
When faced with such a problem, I seem to always waver between the 2 possible solutions. Perhaps my mind, in this process, is saving me from a painful and gut wrenching solution.

Richard Katzev said...

Sheila:
What an impossible choice Sophie faced! Yes, I suppose you could consider it an instance of the Trolley Problem. Chose one child who will be savied; otherwise both will be killed. One or both. If you had two children, what would you do? Perhaps you recall what Sophie did and, subsequently, how her life came to an end.
Richard