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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From Darwin to Damore - the ancient art of using "science" to mask prejudice

Charles Darwin, working at a time when women had little legal rights, declared “woman is a kind of adult child”.

“In addition to the Left’s affinity for those it sees as weak, humans are generally biased towards protecting females,” wrote James Damore, in his now infamous anti-diversity Google memo. “As mentioned before, this likely evolved because males are biologically disposable and because women are generally more co-operative and agreeable than men.” Since the memo was published, hordes of women have come forward to say that views like these – where individuals justify bias on the basis of science – are not uncommon in their traditionally male-dominated fields. Damore’s controversial screed set off discussions about the age old debate: do biological differences justify discrimination?  

Modern science developed in a society which assumed that man was superior over women. Charles Darwin, the father of modern evolutionary biology, who died before women got the right to vote, argued that young children of both genders resembled adult women more than they did adult men; as a result, “woman is a kind of adult child”.

Racial inequality wasn’t immune from this kind of theorising either. As fields such as psychology and genetics developed a greater understanding about the fundamental building blocks of humanity, many prominent researchers such as Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, argued that there were biological differences between races which explained the ability of the European race to prosper and gather wealth, while other races fell far behind. The same kind of reasoning fuelled the Nazi eugenics and continues to fuel the alt-right in their many guises today.

Once scorned as blasphemy, today "science" is approached by many non-practitioners with a cult-like reverence. Attributing the differences between races and gender to scientific research carries the allure of empiricism. Opponents of "diversity" would have you believe that scientific research validates racism and sexism, even though one's bleeding heart might wish otherwise. 

The problem is that current scientific research just doesn’t agree. Some branches of science, such as physics, are concerned with irrefutable laws of nature. But the reality, as evidenced by the growing convergence of social sciences like sociology, and life sciences, such as biology, is that science as a whole will, and should change. The research coming out of fields like genetics and psychology paint an increasingly complex picture of humanity. Saying (and proving) that gravity exists isn't factually equivalent to saying, and trying to prove, that women are somehow less capable at their jobs because of presumed inherent traits like submissiveness. 

When it comes to matters of race, the argument against racial realism, as it’s often referred to, is unequivocal. A study in 2002, authored by Neil Risch and others, built on the work of the Human Genome Project to examine the long standing and popular myth of seven distinct races. Researchers found that  “62 per cent of Ethiopians belong to the same cluster as Norwegians, together with 21 per cent of the Afro-Caribbeans, and the ethnic label ‘Asian’ inaccurately describes Chinese and Papuans who were placed almost entirely in separate clusters.” All that means is that white supremacists are wrong, and always have been.

Even the researcher Damore cites in his memo, Bradley Schmitt of Bradley University in Illinois, doesn’t agree with Damore’s conclusions.  Schmitt pointed out, in correspondence with Wired, that biological difference only accounts for about 10 per cent of the variance between men and women in what Damore characterises as female traits, such as neuroticism. In addition, nebulous traits such as being “people-oriented” are difficult to define and have led to wildly contradictory research from people who are experts in the fields. Suggesting that women are bad engineers because they’re neurotic is not only mildly ridiculous, but even unsubstantiated by Damore’s own research.  As many have done before him, Damore couched his own worldview - and what he was trying to convince others of - in the language of rationalism, but ultimately didn't pay attention to the facts.

And, even if you did buy into Damore's memo, a true scientist would retort - so what? It's a fallacy to argue that just because a certain state of affairs prevails, that that is the way that it ought to be. If that was the case, why does humanity march on in the direction of technological and industrial progress?

Humans weren’t meant to travel large distances, or we would possess the ability to do so intrinsically. Boats, cars, airplanes, trains, according to the Damore mindset, would be a perversion of nature. As a species, we consider overcoming biology to be a sign of success. 

Of course, the damage done by these kinds of views is not only that they’re hard to counteract, but that they have real consequences. Throughout history, appeals to the supposed rationalism of scientific research have justified moral atrocities such as ethnic sterilisation, apartheid, the creation of the slave trade, and state-sanctioned genocide.

If those in positions of power genuinely think that black and Hispanic communities are genetically predisposed to crime and murder, they’re very unlikely to invest in education, housing and community centres for those groups. Cycles of poverty then continue, and the myth, dressed up in pseudo-science, is entrenched. 

Damore and those like him will certainly maintain that the evidence for gender differences are on their side. Since he was fired from Google, Damore has become somewhat of an icon to some parts of society, giving interviews to right-wing Youtubers and posing in a dubious shirt parodying the Google logo (it now says Goolag). Never mind that Damore’s beloved science has already proved them wrong.