February 2015

Ebola!

At our January meeting, Dr. Jay Jacobson, MD, Professor Emeritus in Ethics, Medicine and Infectious Diseases gave us tools to talk about Ebola and other infections.

He started with definitions of words we would need to discuss infections: 1) state produced by the establishment of an infective agent in or on a suitable host 2), a disease caused by germs that enter the body.

The Ebola virus is less contagious (capable of being easily spread to others) or communicable (capable of being communicated) than air borne diseases such as influenza. Ebola is only spread by infected body fluids coming into contact with mucous membranes (such as in eyes, nose, lips, mouth, or genitalia) or open wounds.

Ebola has infected and killed so many fewer people than other infections such as influenza, pneumonia, malaria etc. that we don’t have to get hysterical. Case in point, one person has acquired Ebola in the US. He came into contact with many people on his trip to Texas from Liberia. Only 177 of them were judged to require isolation (separates sick people with a contagious disease from people who are not sick). Two nurses who cared for him were infected, yet he was the only person who died.

“Quarantine” is a 40 (thus the stem “quarant”) day isolation. The term was developed to describe the duration of time that a ship arriving in port and suspected of carrying contagious disease is held in isolation from the shore, a restraint upon the activities or communication of persons designed to prevent the spread of disease, a state of enforced isolation. Technically, the 21 day isolation period for Ebola is not a quarantine but functions like one.

Dr. Jacobson described the R0 of Ebola (R naught, is a measure of how easily an infection spreads) as being much much lower than many other diseases (R0 of Ebola is 1, which means 1-2 people will be infected by each person with the viral infection) and thus, Ebola really is much less frightening than the media makes it out to be. For comparison. With SARS 2-5 people will be infected for each case. Same with HIV. In Mumps 4-7 people will be infected by each person who is sick. For Smallpox 5-7. Pertussis will spread to 12-17 people and Measles to 12-18 people. Measles is so contagious because, besides being airborne, the viral particles can hang in the air, where a sick person has been, for hours.

For Ebola, there is no known cure (a complete solution or remedy) but prevention is rather easily accomplished since the R0 is so low. This is one of the main reasons that the West Africans were caught flat footed in this current epidemic. Ebola has never gotten to 20,000 people infected with almost 9,000 people dead before. In the rural environments where it has surfaced, it has died out before it killed very many.

The ethical questions for discussion are: What is the right action? How do we allocate our resources? Who decides? Who counts as ethically significant? These questions are not yet answered for Ebola. We, as Humanists, need to keep them in mind during the progression of the Ebola epidemic (affecting a disproportionately large number of individuals within a population, community, or regions at the same time).

During the influenza season (a more pertinent infection to us), Dr. Jacobson recommends that everyone get vaccinated, and take precautions when in groups: Don’t touch hands unless you can get to soap and water or antiseptic gel before touching mucous membranes. Wash hands frequently with soap and warm water. Stay away from people who are coughing and otherwise elaborating viruses, bacteria, fungi, and other “germs”. Stay home when ill.

For further reading see “Nature” Volume 514, 16 October 2014.

—Lauren Florence, MD


Hope For Humanity

I am holding a hope in my heart…
a hope for this human race, in which we all take part.

My heart is hurting with…
that Eric Garner, age 43, was not murdered for naught;
that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., age 39, was not assassinated in vain;
that Darrin Hunt, age 22, was not shot dead for nothing;
that Michael Brown, age 18, was not attacked and killed for no reason.

My mind is mourning each of these merciless murders…and many more,
while my heart, heedless to these repeated horrors, adheres to a faint
but palpable hope that there will not be yet another senseless, cruel death
next week, tomorrow, or this very next hour, minute, or second.

I am raising my reasoning and respect for all Americans—and all human being—
who refrain from answering pleas of “I Can’t Breathe!” with chokeholds!

I am pleading with the peace-keepers to please, please pardon
the pejorative insults persistent youth are hurling at systems of injustice.

I am begging every brother, sister, father, mother, daughter, son, boy, and girl alive
to treasure life—all life—so fiercely…to respect and guard and honor
every human being as they would their very own girl or boy, daughter or son,
father or mother, sister, or brother.

As we listen to every excruciating cry of these, our fellow humans who are dying,
May we hold this hope in our hearts, that their harrowing, heartrending cries
will never fall on apathetic hearts, numbed to injustice, or blighted by dispassion.

May our hearts hold up hope, as a beacon to obliterate apathy, injustice, and dispassion.

May our minds maintain the momentum needed to turn this hope into action.

May our human race collectively humanize the de-humanized.

May our journeys collide, and may all our hopes ignite the fires of compassion,
to heal all the hopeless hearts.

—Elaine Stehel


In Defiance of Mob Rule

JeSuisCharlieThe slaughter in Paris a few weeks ago at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine and a kosher grocery market highlights both the necessity and the dangers of speaking out when faced with political idiocy, senseless violence, and irrational dogma. People were killed over some cartoons in a low-circulation satirical rag, for Pete’s sake! A German tabloid that ran some of the same cartoons in tribute to those killed was firebombed.

This brings up the obvious point that religion fears a sense of the ridiculous. Since religion is always a matter of unquestioning faith in a creed with little or no basis in logic or fact, calling attention to its silliness or fictitious nature is explicitly verboten. A sense of ridiculous in the congregation cannot be tolerated and must be suppressed lest the clergy be laughed out of the pulpit. As H.L. Mencken said “One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. It is not only more effective; it is also vastly more intelligent.” The cartoons in question were intended to invoke laughter, and we can’t have that, can we?

In these relatively tolerant United States it is considered merely bad taste and impolite to lampoon or even question someone’s religious beliefs. This was not always the case and old blasphemy laws are still on the books in some states. And even now the writer Sam Harris must travel with bodyguards, having been the subject of numerous death threats from Christians offended by his books The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. Speaking out against the unreasonable takes courage, for people cling quite desperately to their beliefs, often willing to defend them with violence.

But in most countries where Islam is the predominant religion, such blasphemy is a capital offense. To publicly question even the most absurd poppycock can get you killed if that poppycock has anything to do with the Q’uran, the Prophet, or religious tradition. A blogger in Saudi Arabia was recently sentenced to 1,000 lashes, years in prison, and a huge fine for promoting tolerance. And in Pakistan, blasphemy accusations against Christians seem to be common, with false charges being used for revenge after simple street disputes. The accused are then subject to mob violence as well as the civil violence of the courts. One girl was sentenced to hang even though the accusations against her have all the hallmarks of hearsay and slander.

What is particularly galling is that the Islamists are demanding that we submit to their own mob rule, respecting their blasphemy decrees across international borders. A cleric in Yemen can inflame a crowd over some alleged insult to Islam, and the alleged offender will be assaulted or worse. The members of the mob will held blameless. The Islamists are threatening us with this same mob rule across international borders, demanding that our own private citizens curb their tongues or risk violent death by a sleeper cell of jihadi with no regard for our local laws, customs, or constitution. This type of criminal coercion is intolerable.

The cartoonists at Charlie Hedbo were publicly defying this absurd demand, loudly, vociferously, and rightly. They were courageous and correct in their defiance, the bad taste of the cartoons notwithstanding.

—Stephen Hanka


President’s Report

On February 12th our chapter will host its eighth annual “Darwin Day with Humanists of Utah.” As I ALWAYS say, “I’m looking forward to an enjoyable evening celebrating Science with friends and other like-minded people.” I’m also proud of the fact that we have maintained this event for eight years now. Plus, I have always come away from these events having learned something new. But science is more than just cold hard facts. Science imbues the mind with understanding (if you put it to use). It touches our senses and fills us with awe as we humans explore amid the beauty, complexity and vastness of the universe. But the awe we feel is different from that of the religious sort whose awe is toward a deity and all that that entails. For me, at least, my awe is the, “Wow, That’s really cool!” sort. Like the first time I saw the Hubble deep Field images of nearly countless galaxies in this small little piece of the sky that is in the neighborhood of 13 billion light years away. Now that’s awesome. Those images also helped us realize that an understanding of deep time is not unfathomable but an essential part of understanding the “workings” of the Universe. Now that’s awesome.

When I was thinking about this year’s theme for Darwin Day some months back, I enjoyed revisiting what we did at previous D. Days. So just for fun, here’s a quick rundown. In 2008 our first celebration had afternoon speakers Professors Kristen Hawkes and Henry Harpinton on biology and Darwin’s insight. Then in the evening Professor Scot Sampson talked about the need to educate about deep time and evolution. Our second D. Day featured Professor Frank Brown, Dean of Earth Sciences at the U of U who talked of the Hominid discoveries in the Turkana Basin in Africa he has worked on throughout his career. Our third featured Bruce Dain from the U of U who gave a historical presentation of Charles Darwin. Our forth had Professor David Goldsmith speaking paleontologically. Our fifth was at Westminster with Dr. Alan Rogers talking anthropologically. Our sixth Darwin Day was with Jon Seger on evolutionary biology. And last year our seventh, we cohosted with Utah Friends of Paleontology and featured Utah State Paleontologist James Kirkland speaking about Utah’s vast dinosaur quarry and collection.

After looking at the past years speakers I thought it would nice pick a subject other than the same ones from previous events, so I suggest Astronomy. The Board agreed so we decided to make Astronomy the theme for Darwin Day this year. To that end we have invited Paul Ricketts from the University of Utah to give us a presentation. He accepted and will give a presentation on “The Lives of Stars.” (See full details elsewhere.) As we usually do, we will have a reception with finger foods before the presentation, then the presentation followed by birthday cake. Again, as I always say, “Please join us for good food, enlightenment and good conversation.”

One more thing before I go. In the next few months I plan to write a series in the newsletter about guns and gun violence. It is a subject that needs more than one 500 word column, and it is a subject which I am squarely on both sides of the fence, which can be uncomfortable at times. I invite your comments and feelings about this subject and would love to consider them and even present them as part of the discussion. So call me or email me with your thoughts.

—Robert Lane
President, HoU