The Scarlet Plague

The old man manifested an accustomed chagrin as he brought the coin back again close to his own eyes.

“2012,” he shrilled, and then fell to cackling grotesquely. “That was the year Morgan the Fifth was appointed President of the United States by the Board of Magnates. It must have been one of the last coins minted, for the Scarlet Death came in 2013. Lord! Lord!—think of it! Sixty years ago, and I am the only person alive to-day that lived in those times. Where did you find it, Edwin?”

These words were written by Jack London  in a 1912 novel “The Scarlet Plague” .  Yes, that same Jack London who wrote the cheerful and optimistic “White Fang” and “Call of the Wild”.

In the novel the Scarlet Plague emptied the planet in a matter of days in 2013.  Jack London was just a little off.  It’s hard to predict things 100 years into the future.  However, the Ebola virus did start in West Africa in 2013.  Ebola breaks down blood vessel walls and mucous membranes, and colors victims scarlet by causing them to bleed out externally and internally.  The virus is lethal, but so far isn’t as lethal as to reduce the world’s population to a million as the Scarlet Plague did.  So far the Center for Disease Control (CDC) numbers indicate Ebola has approximately 55% mortality rate.  It is highly contagious, but isn’t airborne, and appears to require transmission by contact of host’s body fluids with the membrane tissue of the recipient: mouth, nose, eyes, open wounds, sexual organs, etc.

Ebola Cases and Deaths to date

I am not a virologist or a medical professional.  The medical and disease control professional who have been interviewed seem certain that the outbreak will be controlled.  Yet some publically available data and some statements made by experts are worrying:

U.N. officials say their goal is to stop Ebola in 6 to 9 months.  It isn’t known if that means that the weekly infection rates will begin to go down or that the outbreak will be eradicated.  It appears that the outbreaks of epidemic follow roughly a bell curve with a standard deviation of multiples of maximum incubation period  If that’s the case than the outbreak epidemic curve may look something like this:

Ebola Cases and Deaths projections

Predicting the future outside one’s own area of expertise usually means the projections lack any credibility.  For whatever it is worth, if the disease does progress along as indicated by these curves, it would mean that is the outbreak begins to decline immediately there may be approximately 6500 cases and approximately 3200 deaths.  If it takes 3 months to begin reducing weekly infection rates and subsequently deaths, there may be as many as 70 thousand cases and 35 thousand deaths.  If it takes 6 months for the infection rates to spread, there may be as many as 300 thousand cases and 150 thousand deaths.  Given today’s interconnected world, these deaths are likely not to be contained to West Africa.

When natural disasters strike Malaysia or Haiti, the global community donates tens and hundreds of millions to the efforts.  This Ebola outbreak has the potential, even if it’s a relatively small potential to become a global crisis.  Those of us who can should donate to Doctors without Borders/Medicins sans Frontiers and other reputable medical charities to allow them to pay bonuses to the local healthcare workers and to buy protective equipment and disinfecting chemicals.

As an aside, Jack London didn’t miss too far on his other projections: we don’t have Morgan the Fifth, but we are talking about Bush the Third and Clinton the Second.  There’s no Board of Magnates per se, but the 0.1% of our society has become so rich as to attempt to buy elections and to pick candidates by controlling the flow of donations.  Jack London, living during the previous most unequal period in the U.S. history, simply drew a straight line to the beginning of the 21st century.  Writing in 1912, how was he to know that WW1, the Great Depression and WW2 will decimate the ranks of the super-rich in absolute and relative terms.

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