Ebola: anti-hysteria

Following my description of Ebola as a “Superstar Disease“, microbiologistic people all over the world are queuing up to agree with me:

Indeed. And then there was sciencey author and journalist Maryn McKenna, who was lured out of her temporary hermit status (she’s busy writing a book and doesn’t have time for all this real life stuff) by the Ebola hyperbole, noise and nonsense:

The Ebola outbreak has been building in West Africa for a while, but when it was revealed at the end of last week that two American aid workers had caught the disease — and that they were being transported back to the US for treatment — the news and the reaction to it instantly filled every channel. Over the weekend, so much misinformation and outrage got pumped out that it feels as though there’s no way to cut through the noise.

McKenna’s reaction was to compile a compilation of sensible reactions, columns and opinion pieces on Ebola for Wired.

That I am anti-Ebola panic — and especially anti-Ebola media scrum, which was disgraceful — does not mean I am not concerned about Ebola where it is authentically a problem, which is in the expanding epidemic in West Africa. It is a dreadful outbreak, it needs attention, and it says something ugly about us as a society that we only really noticed it when two Westerners were injured by it. But, again: The conditions that are pushing that epidemic along do not exist in the US.

To be fair, I think that the world (although perhaps not the USA) was concerned about Ebola and the Daily Mail had begun with its scare stories before these two aid workers were repatriated for treatment. Maybe it’s because we’re on the same continent or maybe it’s because the US remains entirely US-centric that here in SA, we’re somehow more aware about the Ebola outbreak and have been for a while.
So yes, same continent, but Africa is big: Sierra Leone’s Freetown is closer to Miami than it is to Cape Town. But then we’re all just a flight or two away anyway.

If I worked for the CDC (albeit that they’re not always 100% perfect) or any of the organisations involved with the transport or treatment of the two Americans in Atlanta, I’d actually be rather offended that people thought I’d be so sloppy at my job or poorly-trained enough to pose a danger to people in the surrounding area. It’s not like I go up to local scaffolders and suggest that their scaffolding isn’t safe. Well, not often, anyway.

Before you get carried along with the hype, you’d do well to go and have a read of some of the stuff McKenna links to; my favourite being this one.

Besides Ebola…

While there is a (rightfully) well-publicised Ebola outbreak taking place in West Africa, it doesn’t mean that the usual suspects of the infectious diseases world have gone away. And while the world’s attention is focused on that pesky haemorrhagic fever virus, cholera has been going about its usual business in Nigeria, Ghana and South Sudan.
It’s a reminder that while the “superstar diseases” are widely and enthusiastically reported by the First World’s sensationalist media (like the bubonic plague case (singular) in China that I mentioned last week), the more mundane stuff continues, but goes very much under the radar.

Cholera is unpleasant, acute and life-threatening, especially in children. It’s also fairly simple to prevent, assuming that you can get access to clean water:

“It is the filth everywhere and the lack of hygiene among our people,” the Deputy Director of Health for the Greater Accra Region, Dr John Eleaza said, noting that some patients have been victims of the disease despite using pipe-borne water.
Unfortunately we have some of our pipelines going through some of these drains…some of them are broken” he said.
He is advising Ghanaians to be careful and practise proper hygiene to prevent a deterioration of the outbreak.

And while the mortality rate doesn’t rival that of Ebola, the sheer numbers affected mean that the death toll in these outbreaks is already rapidly approaching (if not exceeding) that of their more famous cousin up the road.

Even the local media is more concerned with the Ebola outbreak than that of cholera, as this story in Nigeria’s Vanguard demonstrates, with nearly half the piece being hijacked by Ebola news, including this spectacular advice from State Commissioner for Health Dr. Joe Akabike:

…avoid touching corpses of victims of the disease and to avoid sexual intercourse with patients of the disease until after three months of their recovery in order not to contact the disease.

He doesn’t mention avoiding sexual intercourse with the corpses, but I suppose that’s just considered common sense.
And common decency.

I digress. All I wanted to remind people is that the Ebola outbreak should be considered an additional problem, and not suddenly the only problem in sub-Saharan Africa.

Not all like that

And then, amongst all the madness and bad press from the Oscar Pistorious case, (his dad hasn’t helped) a bit of sense from Amanda Willard in the Huffington Post:

On any level this is heartbreaking but what we need to leave behind is the belief, created by a bloodthirsty media on the scent of an emotive story, that this all happened against the backdrop of the most violent country in the world. Quite simply it isn’t.

When it comes to gun-related homicide, South Africa comes in at no.12 with many South American and Caribbean countries such as Venezuela, Colombia, Honduras, Belize and El Salvador significantly ranking way above it.

Holiday destinations such as Jamaica are much higher up the list. Even the location for the 2016 Olympics and the next FIFA World Cup, Brazil, a country comparable in many ways for the gap between rich and poor in society, is above South Africa in this table.

I have visited this beautiful country roughly ten times and travelled from the tropical heat of the KwaZulu-Natal, to the urban excitement of Johannesburg. From the stunning beaches of the Cape to experiencing sunsets on safari. It’s unbeatable.

Once again, it’s not so much the “revelation” that there are problems here in SA, it’s more the exceptionalism and disproportionate and sensationalist reporting that is doing the harm.

Full text here, including full on Apocalypse predictions in the dramatic comments section.


“Twitter not the judge” revelation shocker

An article in today’s Business Tech warns twitter users (primarily South African twitter users, one would imagine) against tweeting potentially defamatory statements about athlete Oscar Pistorius, currently – in case you hadn’t heard – charged with the murder of his girlfriend  Reeva Steenkamp.

According to legal expert Paul Jacobson:

“While our Bill of rights gives us the right to express our opinions, our rights are not absolute and, in the context of defamation, the defamed person’s right to dignity often holds sway unless there are clear public policy reasons to allow the comments to stand.”

He pointed out that Pistorius is yet to be found guilty and is therefore, still under law, innocent.

“Drawing conclusions about Pistorius’ guilt and publishing those conclusions online can lead to a defamation claim down the line.”

Who knew?

Well, aside from the whole common sense thing, the warning signs were there for all to see late last year in the Lord McAlpine/Newsnight scandal:

The legal position of an individual who posts content online, be it on Facebook, Twitter, or on comment sections of online news pages, is clear: He or she is responsible for that content. Ignorance of the law is not a defence.

It’s not that hard to understand why: the viral nature with which content – and therefore false or defamatory content – can spread on social networks is one of their strengths and yet one of their biggest downfalls as well. And:

When individuals post material online, they act as publishers and their publications are subject to the same laws as those of professional publishers, such as newspapers.

This includes publications made by way of a tweet. A retweet also amounts to a further publication.

The person who retweets that material will be responsible for the content of that retweet.

So yes, we each have to be responsible for our 140-character output. And that seems reasonable to me.

One wonders, however, where that leaves twitter users who – in good faith – share stories from recognised and “reputable” sources – namely our national newspapers.
Last Sunday’s City Press is a good case in point. The “facts” it published ahead of the Pistorius bail hearing, have since been shown to be almost entirely incorrect, but they were widely lapped up and regurgitated by a gossip-hungry twitter audience on the weekend.  That “Exclusive” was shared on over 1000 occasions directly from the page alone and excerpts and quotes from it many more times over.

That’s a lot of people who could potentially find themselves in trouble.

UPDATE: Or at least be “asked” to make a donation to charity.

Danger From Above!

Page 4 of today’s Cape Times warns of dangers from above which may threaten your safety in and around the Mother City.

First up is the hot air balloon crash at Beyerskloof vineyards in the Cape Winelands on Saturday – witnessed by none other than Beyerskloof supremo Beyers Truter:

The Civil Aviation Authority is investigating why a private hot air balloon drifted into power cables on a local wine estate at the weekend.
Two women were seriously injured in the incident. Louise Vorster, 57, and Sanet Koster, 50, both from Melkbosstrand, are recovering at Stellenbosch Mediclinic. A third woman, Marie Jacobs, 50, from Johannesburg, sustained minor injuries along with the pilot Justin Fowler.

According to a weekend newspaper, Beyerskloof wine estate owner Beyers Truter and one of his staff were walking in the vineyards when they witnessed the incident around 7.30-8am.
Truter said he called Netcare 911 emergency service after seeing sparks and flames from the electrical cables, which surrounded the balloon.

The estate was without electricity for an hour after the incident.

There is no word there or whether any of the vines were damaged. I’m trying desperately to get comment from the vineyard before my Mum reads this and fears the worst.

And then the much sensationalised and leapt upon story of the day, the fact that some bolts are “failing” on the roof of the Cape Town Stadium (see here)

Sections of the roof of Cape Town Stadium appear to be coming loose thanks to “bolt failure”, and the city says it is to spend R1 million to investigate what’s causing it.
A few bolts in the stadium roof were found to have failed during routine inspections a year ago. The roof was designed to withstand strong south-easters.

But the city has guaranteed the stadium’s safety and intends to recover the costs from the party responsible.

OMG! Coming loose! A few bolts! Routine inspections! A year ago! 

But a million Rand is a lot of money, as someone pointed out:

Councillor Yagyah Adams of the Cape Muslim Congress, who attended a finance portfolio committee meeting which discussed the matter, asked why the city would spend as much as R1m.

“If we’re paying R1m just to investigate, what about the repairs?” asked Adams.

Well, the city will recover the costs from the party responsible. They should have mentioned that at the meeting you attended. Or maybe you just should have listened while you were there, Yagyah.

Ironically, these “few bolts” are being cited as another reason why WPRU shouldn’t move to the new stadium, but hey – at least things at Green Point are still “under guarantee”. The same is probably true of Durban’s Stadium Skycar which broke down last weekend due to “a valve malfunction, leading to a loss of oil and hydraulic pressure” !!!!1!! OMG! again!

Conveniently, no-one can remember if there were any teething problems at Newlands, since the ground was built in the late 1880’s, prior to the advent of sensationalist media and modern stadium evacuation procedures.