At the time of this writing, the Ebola patient in Dallas is “fighting for his life.” As of now he is the only victim of the disease in this country. More than 7,000 people in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone have contracted Ebola in this latest outbreak, the biggest on record. More than 3,000 victims have died.
The disease continues to be spreading. Meanwhile, medical aid centers from several countries are gradually being established in the hardest hit areas. While the conditions in which the virus is transmitted are well known, it remains uncertain how many more individuals will be infected.
I was reminded of a blog I wrote earlier this year about two films that deal with the spread and consequences of viruses. I am reposting it today.
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.
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.