Plague on our houses


The year is 430 BC, the setting is Athens. The Athenians find themselves immersed in the Peloponnesian War, facing a double threat: besieged in its own territory by the Spartans and ravaged from the inside by a silent killer, which has been filling its temples with decrepit corpses. Thucydides is perhaps the first direct witness of a plague to put in writing his experience and that of his fellow citizens, documenting phenomena which would go on to echo throughout history.

According to the historian, the so-called “Plague of Athens” generated economic difficulties as the loss of population put severe strain on agriculture and commerce. The confrontation with human mortality also prompted rampant lawlessness and civil disobedience.The risk of contagion itself prevented many Athenians from looking after the sick, instead dumping them on the street or in the temples – ironically only exacerbating the problem – or hurriedly burying them in mass-graves. Superstition superseded religious piety amongst the population and there was a sense of Sparta’s onslaught being reinforced by the gods.

The impact of disease on social and religious behaviour was also documented during the worldwide pandemic best known as the Black Death. Many experts have vied for the Athenian Plague to be identified as the Ebola virus, which would be plausible given the intense commercial contact between Africa and Greece via the Nilotic settlements. The three week incubation period of both the Ebola and the Marburg virus also seem to back up this hypothesis.

The year is 2014, and West Africa faces the largest ever outbreak of Ebola virus affecting Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria and Congo. By August 24th, the number of suspected cases had risen to 3,069, with 1,552 death. By September 6th, the plague had already affected 4,293 and claimed 2,296 victims, due to the tardy and lax implementation of quarantine measures. Panic spreads through the population as caregivers realise the potential risk of being infected through direct contact with the victims, due to the way Ebola spreads through body fluids. Funeral rites are often disregarded, with many left to die on the streets. On August 8th, a cordon sanitaire was established in the area between the vague frontiers of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The closure of the boarders, however, has proven even more disastrous for the already devastated economies of the countries affected. By the start of October, over 3,800 lives have been claimed.

A UN spokesperson has reported the almost twofold increase in prices of some basic food items due to the increasing demand and decreasing supply. Even though Ebola has been rampant through the Western part of the continent for the better part of this summer, little or no measures have been taken, and organisations such as WHO or even the UN have failed to provide a coherent answer against the pandemic, which could possibly have been ended had there been a more active international cooperation. Independent humanitarian aid organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières or Samaritans, however, have stepped in to offer help to the countries affected, often at the cost of their own members’ lives.

On August 12th, the Ebola virus claimed its first European victim, Father Miguel Pajares, a Spanish missionary who contracted the virus in Liberia. In spite of being repatriated to the Hospital Carlos III in Madrid a week earlier, and being treated with the experimental drug known as ZMapp, he ultimately lost his battle with Ebola. This experimental treatment, however, has also been offered to other patients such as the British nurse William Pooley, who successfully overcame the virus in August. Its efficacy in humans has not been fully proven, yet the studies carried out on other primates give great hopes for the future of Ebola affected patients.

Pandemics have evolved together with humanity and have shaped its history to an extent larger than we can even imagine. Few would be aware that biological warfare was actually a Medieval invention; in 1347 when the Black Death was ravaging the European continent, the Mongols besieging Caffa (in Crimea) had the idea to catapult plague victims and corpses over enemy walls as veritable disease grenades. A similar military tactic was adopted by the Japanese airforce during WWII as an airplane flying over the Chinese province of Chekiang released a cargo of rice and wheat filled with rat fleas carrying Yersinia pestis, responsible for many of the plagues in history (6th c AD Justinian Plague or Black Death itself).

Often resorted to but always vehemently denied, biological warfare has become the mistress of modern day warfare. Though the volatility of this approach has been contested, with some refusing to acknowledge the potential for this tactic to backfire  and affect both aggressor and victim, pathogens easier to control or engineer such as the Bacillus anthracis have become the staple of biological warfare.

Human population, livestock or crops can be targeted. It is noteworthy that individuals history have often found a way to use such plagues in their benefit yet entire nations cannot work together to control or eradicate them. A good word has to be said for pathogens, as they are not always the enemy: the fact that their evolutionary process is strongly linked with that of other species makes them the right carrier for gene research and therapy,prevention or treatment of cancer and even the control of harmful organisms in both medicine and agriculture.

But are we prepared for pandemic outbreaks? Zombie thrillers, contagion films, Godzilla and alien invasion flicks constantly put humanity to test, and yet invariably there is a happy ending, not without the help of the latest Hollywood hunk or a last minute “Chekhov’s gun”. Reality, however, reveals that in spite of all the fictional trials we are still not able to deal with a large-scale disaster. Ebola is not the problem of a nation or a continent; in a 21st century firmly rooted into a technological and cosmopolitan Zeitgeist, Ebola becomes a global problem.