Hope injection: women with their pets at a rabies vaccination centre in India. Photo: Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty Images
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Preventing rabies: the dog jabs that can save humans

Responsibility for treatment of infected people falls on human health services. It is difficult to create an alliance against rabies until animal and human health experts co-ordinate.

By the time you read this, more than 3,000 people will have died in the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Barack Obama has said that the world is not doing enough to counter the disease. This may be true but there are other diseases more worthy of an international collaborative effort.

Ebola has a strange power over us. Its rapid spread and dramatic symptoms (bleeding from the eyes, for instance) and high kill rate evoke a panic response. But as Seth Berkley, who leads the Global Alliance for Vaccination and Immunisation (Gavi), has said, we should probably be more concerned about the resurgence of measles, the persistent killing power of dengue shock syndrome and the creeping number of cases of rubella and pertussis, also known as whooping cough. And then there’s rabies. The disease has an almost 100 per cent fatality rate, accounting for 69,000 deaths a year. It kills 75 children each day. The progression of the disease is, like Ebola, a slow agony that ends with multiple organ failure. But unlike Ebola, this disease is entirely preventable – and has been since 1885, when the first vaccine was developed.

In the 26 September issue of the journal Science, a group of researchers called for mass dog vaccination to counter the threat. Their pilot programme in Tanzania achieved 70 per cent immunity in the dog population by administering a rabies vaccine. This was enough to reduce the human rabies infection rate in the region from 50 per year to almost zero.

The main reason the rabies threat hasn’t been tackled is what the researchers term the “responsibility gap”. As they point out, the only infectious diseases we have ever eradicated are smallpox and rinderpest. One is an exclusively human infection; the other exclusively animal. Dogs, which are the main reservoir for the rabies virus, are the province of veterinarians. Responsibility for treatment of infected people (95 per cent of whom are in Africa and Asia) falls on human health services. It is difficult to create an alliance against rabies until animal and human health experts co-ordinate to pool funding.

It wouldn’t take vast resources. A dog vaccination programme would cost significantly less than is spent on treating people who have been exposed to the virus (the saving would be particularly valuable in Asia, where 90 per cent of such treatments take place). Initially, vaccination requires about $200 per square kilometre, the researchers estimate. Once the local pooches are rabies-free, the cost of maintaining the required 70 per cent immunity is about half that.

And don’t be sidelined by the myth that roaming packs of strays are a problem. Studies show that less than 11 per cent of dogs in African countries are ownerless and the trial programmes have successfully vaccinated what the researchers coyly term “community dogs”.

Not that rabies is an exclusively canine issue. The most recent death in the UK, which occurred in 2002, came from a bat bite. That’s also true of the US: in 2011, a woman in South Carolina died of rabies after being bitten by a bat that had flown into her bedroom. Yet bats are not big reservoirs for the virus. In the UK, the infection rate is about ten per 12,000. The last time a British bat was found to be carrying rabies was in 2008.

This low level of bat-borne infection may be because we have been so successful with our canine immunisation programmes. Research in Africa suggests that other animal species in the locality become rabies-free once local dogs are immunised.

What is needed now is a coalition committed to make that happen. Ebola can wait.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World

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Forget fake news on Facebook – the real filter bubble is you

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that reinforces their beliefs, there is little that can be done.

It’s Google that vaunts the absurdly optimistic motto “Don’t be evil”, but there are others of Silicon Valley’s techno-nabobs who have equally high-flown moral agendas. Step forward, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who responded this week to the brouhaha surrounding his social media platform’s influence on the US presidential election thus: “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it. Let’s go work even harder.”

To which the only possible response – if you’re me – is: “No we aren’t, no we don’t, and I’m going back to my flowery bed to cultivate my garden of inanition.” I mean, where does this guy get off? It’s estimated that a single message from Facebook caused about 340,000 extra voters to pitch up at the polls for the 2010 US congressional elections – while the tech giant actually performed an “experiment”: showing either positive or negative news stories to hundreds of thousands of their members, and so rendering them happier or sadder.

In the past, Facebook employees curating the site’s “trending news” section were apparently told to squash stories that right-wingers might “like”, but in the run-up to the US election the brakes came off and all sorts of fraudulent clickbait was fed to the denizens of the virtual underworld, much – but not all of it – generated by spurious alt-right “news sites”.

Why? Because Facebook doesn’t view itself as a conventional news provider and has no rubric for fact-checking its news content: it can take up to 13 hours for stories about Hillary Clinton eating babies barbecued for her by Barack Obama to be taken down – and in that time Christ knows how many people will have not only given them credence, but also liked or shared them, so passing on the contagion. The result has been something digital analysts describe as a “filter bubble”, a sort of virtual helmet that drops down over your head and ensures that you receive only the sort of news you’re already fit to be imprinted with. Back in the days when everyone read the print edition of the New York Times this sort of manipulation was, it is argued, quite impossible; after all, the US media historically made a fetish of fact-checking, an editorial process that is pretty much unknown in our own press. Why, I’ve published short stories in American magazines and newspapers and had fact-checkers call me up to confirm the veracity of my flights of fancy. No, really.

In psychology, the process by which any given individual colludes in the creation of a personalised “filter bubble” is known as confirmation bias: we’re more inclined to believe the sort of things that validate what we want to believe – and by extension, surely, these are likely to be the sorts of beliefs we want to share with others. It seems to me that the big social media sites, while perhaps blowing up more and bigger filter bubbles, can scarcely be blamed for the confirmation bias. Nor – as yet – have they wreaked the sort of destruction on the world that has burst from the filter bubble known as “Western civilisation” – one that was blown into being by the New York Times, the BBC and all sorts of highly respected media outlets over many decades.

Societies that are both dominant and in the ascendant always imagine their belief systems and the values they enshrine are the best ones. You have only to switch on the radio and hear our politicians blithering on about how they’re going to get both bloodthirsty sides in the Syrian Civil War to behave like pacifist vegetarians in order to see the confirmation bias hard at work.

The Western belief – which has its roots in imperialism, but has bodied forth in the form of liberal humanism – that all is for the best in the world best described by the New York Times’s fact-checkers, is also a sort of filter bubble, haloing almost all of us in its shiny and translucent truth.

Religion? Obviously a good-news feed that many billions of the credulous rely on entirely. Science? Possibly the biggest filter bubble there is in the universe, and one that – if you believe Stephen Hawking – has been inflating since shortly before the Big Bang. After all, any scientific theory is just that: a series of observable (and potentially repeatable) regularities, a bubble of consistency we wander around in, perfectly at ease despite its obvious vulnerability to those little pricks, the unforeseen and the contingent. Let’s face it, what lies behind most people’s beliefs is not facts, but prejudices, and all this carping about algorithms is really the howling of a liberal elite whose own filter bubble has indeed been popped.

A television producer I know once joked that she was considering pitching a reality show to the networks to be called Daily Mail Hate Island. The conceit was that a group of ordinary Britons would be marooned on a desert island where the only news they’d have of the outside world would come in the form of the Daily Mail; viewers would find themselves riveted by watching these benighted folk descend into the barbarism of bigotry as they absorbed ever more factitious twaddle. But as I pointed out to this media innovator, we’re already marooned on Daily Mail Hate Island: it’s called Britain.

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that constantly and consistently reinforces their beliefs, what are you going to do about it? The current argument is that Facebook’s algorithms reinforce political polarisation, but does anyone really believe better editing on the site will return our troubled present to some prelap­sarian past, let alone carry us forward into a brave new factual future? No, we’re all condemned to collude in the inflation of our own filter bubbles unless we actively seek to challenge every piece of received information, theory, or opinion. And what an exhausting business that would be . . . without the internet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile