Michael T. Osterholm’s piece on Eblola for the NYT pretty much confirms what I’ve been thinking about this unfolding crisis. First: what’s to stop the virus from spreading from West Africa to megacities in the developing nation. He mentions Lagos, Nairobi, Kinshasha, or Mogadishu (in Africa) or even Karachi, Jakarta, Mexico City, or Dhaka. If you’re curious, here are the population figures for those cities:
- Lagos, Nigeria: 21,000,000 people at a density of 51,820 per square mile
- Nairobi, Kenya: 3,375,000 people at a density of 12,600 per square mile
- Kinshasha, Democratic Republic of Congo: 9,046,000 at a density of 40,000 per square mile
- Mogadishu, Somalia: 1,353,000 people at a density of 2,120 per square mile
- Karachi, Pakistan: 23,500,000 people
- Jakarta, Indonesia: 9,588,198 people at a density of 37,460 per square mile
- Mexico City, Mexico: 8,851,080 people at a density of 15,000 per square mile
- Dhaka, Bangladesh: 14,399,000 people at a density of 115,200 per square mile
Just for some context, New York City has a population of 8,405,837 and a density of 27,779 per square mile. So some of these cities are more than twice as big and Dhaka, at least, is more than twice as densely populated. Of course, unlike New York City, they don’t have First World sanitary and medical services. The devastation wreaked by an outbreak in such densely populated regions could be horrific, not to mention the accompanying chaos from fear and quarantine measures.
The other fear, however, is that the virus will mutate to become airborne. Right now it is spread only by direct contact with bodily fluid of someone who is infected, which is why First World nations are probably not as vulnerable to widespread contagion. But, like many viruses, Ebola mutates a lot. What’s particularly worrisome, however, is that the more people that get sick, the more copies of the virus there are to mutate. Every new host is trillions of new chances for an airborne version to emerge. This is why fighting the outbreak now is a global concern, other than for the obvious humanitarian reasons.
I’m not writing this as a scare article. There’s no guarantee that the virus will mutate. This is the worst Ebola outbreak ever, but it’s certainly not the first. I had just wondered, myself, if mutation to an airborne strain wasn’t the primary reason for concern. But I hadn’t heard anyone mention it. Until now. Looks like it is the primary concern. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. (Osterholm’s piece has recommendations for hos to fight the virus now, most of which involve the UN.)