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

Lifestage
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Everything that is wrong with the app Facebook doesn't want over 21s to download

Facebook's new teen-only offering, Lifestage, is just like your mum: it's trying too hard to relate and it doesn't care for your privacy.

Do you know the exact moment Facebook became uncool? Designed as a site to connect college students in 2004, the social network enjoyed nearly a decade of rapid, unrivalled growth before one day your mum – yes, your mum – using the same AOL email address she’s had since her dial-up days, logged on. And then she posted a Minion meme about drinking wine.

Facebook knows it’s uncool. It had a decline in active users in 2014, and in 2015 a survey of 4,485 teens discovered it came seventh in a ranking of ten social apps in terms of coolness. In fact, only 8 per cent of its users are aged between 13 and 19. This is the main reason the corporation have now created Lifestage, an app specifically for under-21s to “share a visual profile of who [they] are with [their] school network”.

Here’s how it works. After signing up and selecting their school, users are prompted to create a series of short videos – of their facial expressions, things they like, and things they dislike – that make up their profile. Once 20 people from any school sign up, that school is unlocked, meaning everyone within it can access one another’s profiles as well as those from nearby schools. Unlike Snapchat (and truly, this is the only thing that is unlike Snapchat) there is no chat function, but teens can put in their phone number and Instagram handles in order to talk. Don’t worry, though, there are still vomit-rainbows.

But with this new development, rather than hosting your mum, Facebook has become her. Lifestage is not only an embarrassing attempt to be Down With The Kids via the medium of poop emoji, it is also an invasive attempt to pry into their personal lives. Who’s your best friend? What do you like? What’s not cool? These are all questions the app wants teens to answer, in its madcap attempt to both appeal to children and analyse them.

“Post what you are into right now – and replace the video in that field whenever you want,” reads the app description on the iTunes store. “It's not just about the happy moments – build a video profile of the things you like, but also things you don’t like.” They might as well have written: “Tell us what’s cool. Please.”

Yet this is more than an innocent endeavour to hashtag relate, and is a very real attempt, like Facebook’s many others, to collect as much data on users as possible. Teens – no matter how many hot pink splashes and cartoon toilet rolls are used to infantilise them – are smart enough to have figured this out, with one of the 16 reviews of the app on the iTunes store titled “Kinda Sorta Creepy”, and another, by a user called Lolzeka, reading:

“I don't like how much information you have to give out. I don't want my phone number to be known nor do I want everyone to know my Instagram and Snapchat. I could not figure out how to take a picture or why my school was needed. Like I said, I don't want all my information out there.”

But Facebook already knows everything about everyone ever, and it’s not this data-mining that is the most concerning element of the app. It is the fact that – on an app specifically designed for children as young as 13 to share videos of themselves – there is no user verification process. “We can't confirm that people who claim to go to a certain school actually go to that school,” Facebook readily admits.

Although the USP of this app is that those over the age of 21 can only create a profile and aren’t allowed to view others, there isn’t a failsafe way to determine a user’s age. There is nothing to stop anyone faking both their age and the school they go to in order to view videos of, and connect with, teens.

Yet even without anyone suspicious lurking in the shadows, the app’s privacy settings have already come under scrutiny. The disclaimer says all videos uploaded to Lifestage are “fully public content” and “there is no way to limit the audience of your videos”. Despite the fact it is designed to connect users within schools, videos can be seen anyone, regardless of their school, and are “viewable by everyone”.

Of course none of this matters if teens don’t actually bother to use the app, which is currently only available in the US. Lifestage’s creator, 19-year-old Michael Sayman, designed it as a “way to take Facebook from 2004 and bring it to 2016”. Although he has the successful app 4Snaps under his belt, there is no guarantee Lifestage will succeed where Facebook’s other app attempts (Notify, Facebook Gifts, Poke) have not.

There are a few tricks Facebook has put in place to prompt the app to succeed, including the fact that users are ranked by how active they are, and those who don’t post enough updates will be labelled with a frowning or (here we go again) poop emoji. Still, this hardly seems enough for an app whose distinguishing feature is “Privacy? Nah.” 

Only time will tell whether the app will appeal to teens, but one thing is certain: if it does, your mum is totally downloading it.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.