Ebola: the Baobabs of Infectious Diseases

In Le Petit Prince, the Prince describes to the pilot why he diligently removed baobabs from his tiny planet:

“That is strictly correct,” I said. “But why do you want the sheep to eat the little baobabs?”

He answered me at once, “Oh, come, come!”, as if he were speaking of something that was self-evident. And I was obliged to make a great mental effort to solve this problem, without any assistance.

Indeed, as I learned, there were on the planet where the little prince lived–as on all planets–good plants and bad plants. In consequence, there were good seeds from good plants, and bad seeds from bad plants. But seeds are invisible. They sleep deep in the heart of the earth’s darkness, until some one among them is seized with the desire to awaken. Then this little seed will stretch itself and begin–timidly at first–to push a charming little sprig inoffensively upward toward the sun. If it is only a sprout of radish or the sprig of a rose-bush, one would let it grow wherever it might wish. But when it is a bad plant, one must destroy it as soon as possible, the very first instant that one recognizes it.

Now there were some terrible seeds on the planet that was the home of the little prince; and these were the seeds of the baobab. The soil of that planet was infested with them. A baobab is something you will never, never be able to get rid of if you attend to it too late. It spreads over the entire planet. It bores clear through it with its roots. And if the planet is too small, and the baobabs are too many, they split it in pieces . . .

Before this year, an Ebola outbreak would stay within the confines of a village or community, killing no more than a few hundred people at a time.  In the current outbreak, more than ten thousand people have been infected and approximately five thousand of those people have died, which is more than the previous thirty-plus years of casualties combined.

If there were ever a baobab that ought not take root, it is the current strain of Ebola.  It seems innocuous now, as the sarcasm and jokes fly about only one person in America dying of it, but we can stop it when only one person has died on American soil.  Once taken root (see the analogy?), Ebola will be almost impossible to quarantine and manage; at best, it will fly through the population until we can find a vaccine, and at worst, it will result in draconian quarantine measures for all citizens.  The push for travel restriction and quarantines isn’t xenophobic; it’s good sense.

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