2012: the raw and promising new year

Best wishes to you and yours as we bring 2011 to a close and ring in the new year. Thanks for reading and sharing, and I look forward to another year with you in 2012.

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An excerpt from my final column of 2011 for The Independent (Rwanda Edition):

Shuffling through memories of the past twelve months, one is reminded of the heaving, tumultuous and heady days that made up the molding of global and local politics, innovation, and society. Almost every year feels exceptional at its end, and this one is no different. Exceptional for the unexpected uprisings, reassuring surprises, and most of all, the untimely, or perhaps just sobering, deaths.

A remarkable feature of the human brain is that emotion triggers extraordinary powers of memory – emotional events, traumatic or ecstatic, are captured in a different way from ordinary occurrences. I have many such memories this year. I can recall vividly the walls and tables of a classroom at the moment I heard that Tunisia’s Ben Ali stepped down, the living room and footage on Al Jazeera of Mubarak’s fall, the computer screen announcing Bin Laden’s death, and the Twitter feed of my phone as I scrolled through news of Gaddafi’s brutal demise early one morning, all in 140 characters or less. I also recall the unusually grey and rainy Palo Alto morning marking the first day in 57 years of a world without Steve Jobs, just a few days after the passing of Wangari Maathai. I see clearly the words of Christopher Hitchen’s last column staring back at me, in stark and final relief.

There are of course many other memories, moments captured with friends and family, as well as moments alone, preserved not as events in their entirety, but as a series of snapshots. At the end of every year, as now, there is more time to sit and shuffle through them. It feels like an exceptional year, and the past ten have felt like an exceptional decade.

The pace of progress, innovation, and change makes each decade, and increasingly, each year, feel remarkably different from the previous. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, we experienced tremendous economic growth worldwide, a sharp break from the previous several decades. By the mid-2000s, nearly every single country in the world experienced positive economic growth. The number of new infections of HIV is falling by the year, and deaths due to HIV peaked in sub-Saharan Africa and worldwide in 2004/5. Around the same time, Google went public, and together with Facebook, is now a household name in the global village. Mobile phone use has increased exponentially worldwide. In 2000, there were 12 mobile phone users for every 100 people. Today, there are around 69 mobile phone subscribers for every 100 individuals around the globe.

Change, therefore, is brazenly constant. Anyone who suggests otherwise is either deluding themselves or not paying attention. This is as true in Africa as in the rest of the world, although many both in and outside of the continent have been slow to recognize that the former has not, in fact, been standing in place while the latter dashes on.

The churning and surging marketplace for ideas is open. The stepping-stones placed by yesterday’s innovators serve as a launching pads for vaulting into the next year and decade. Even in the destruction strewn by mad and ordinary men lie the pieces that will build society anew. One can pick them up, or stargaze at glittering towers and soaring skylines far from home.

Entering the new year, we are without many of those who began 2011 with us just one year ago. The most memorable deaths on the news circuit were violent, painful, or both, untimely or just-in-time. The world is short a few tyrants, but short a good many great and beautiful minds too. Their exit is a reminder of the inexorable march forward that spares no one. There is no standing still, but there are choices, and our own expectations.

Here is to the raw and promising new year.

Researching Nodding Disease

Nodding disease is a syndrome that was first reported in Tanzania in 1962, has been spreading in South Sudan and Uganda more recently. The number of cases in northern Uganda appear to have increased at a particularly fast clip in the last year. Nodding disease sounds made-up, but it is very real and often fatal, and is becoming a growing problem in the region. Most problematic is that the causes of nodding disease are still unclear, although there appears to be a connection with a parasitic infection from Onchocerca Volvulus, which causes river blindness.

Adult Onchocerca volvulus worms (WHO)

The Daily Monitor ran a story on December 23, 2011, quoting director of health services in Uganda, Dr. Jane Achieng, as saying that there are around 2,200 reported cases of nodding disease in Uganda (most in Acholi sub-region) and that the first case in the area had been reported in 2009.

A letter to the Daily Monitor written by Dr. Ddungu, of the Uganda Programme on Cancer and Infectious Diseases, notes that a similar phenomenon was studied in Kyarusozi sub-county as early as 1991. A 1992 study by E. Ovuga et al. on this topic was published in the East African Medical Journal.

Nodding disease appears to afflict children between the ages of 5 and 15 and is usually diagnosed by the characteristic nodding it produces in children. The head nodding (HN) is often triggered by eating or seeing familiar foods, or when a child becomes cold. Winkler et al. (2008) write:

HN represents a repetitive short loss of neck muscle tone resulting in a nodding of the head, sometimes associated with a short loss of muscle tone of the upper extremities. Loss or impairment of consciousness may be present, but not always. To date HN is not mentioned in any classification and it remains unclear whether it represents a seizure disorder and if so, whether it belongs to the group of generalized or partial seizures.

Nodding disease appears to be a growing problem that warrants serious attention from the government. The CDC and WHO have been involved in investigating its causes, but there has been relatively little information available to the public about this illness. I’ll be posting information on the published medical literature on nodding disease, as well as news updates and commentary as they become available.

What is the (global) village gossiping about?

What is the (global) village gossiping about?

Published online December 22, 2011.

Accessing people’s thoughts and interests from Asia to Africa is just a click away

It used to be that education primarily took place in a classroom. These days, the chalk and blackboard are fading away and steadily being replaced, or at least complemented, by new technology. Even in some of the world’s hardest-to-reach places, cell towers and solar-charging stations are re-inventing the learning and communication experience. Alongside the traditional classroom teacher are laptops and cell phones, paving the way toward a whole new way of seeing the world.

A world of data is at your fingertips, quite literally. The advent of personal computers and increasing interest in making information open and accessible to all means that we now have the ability to answer many questions faster and more accurately than we ever thought possible. Information on everything from economic growth to weather patterns to flu outbreaks is just a Google search away.  Data and data sources are not without their flaws, but we can often see broad patterns much more clearly across and within countries than we once could. The question is, how can we take advantage of new and ever increasing sources of information? Perhaps one of the most novel uses of data pieces together the wisdom of the crowd. In particular, Internet search terms are an amazing guide to all sorts of phenomena we care about, including public opinion on politics and policies, investment interests, and even trends in infectious disease.

What kind of information are people searching for? What are the questions to which they seek answers? One can of course look at broad trends in search engine search terms across countries, something similar to looking at words and topics that are “trending” on Twitter, but one can also look for more specific information. How many people in the U.S., Europe, or Asia look for information about Rwanda, for example? What kind of information do they look for? Google Insights for Search can help answer these kinds of questions, and reveal interests from potential investors, tourists, and others that can be useful to the local business community, government, civil society, and individuals.

If you look at the most frequent search terms related to “Rwanda” used by those living in the United States, France, or even China, you’ll find that most are related to the genocide or the movie, Hotel Rwanda. Within the U.S., searches for “Rwanda genocide” spike every April and May, although the spikes are becoming smaller over time. This is some indication that while the world still heavily associates Rwanda with genocide, this association is becoming weaker with time. Searches for “Rwanda safari” or “Rwanda gorillas” increased greatly in 2005 and 2007 respectively, and most of these searches came from individuals living in the United States or the UK.

Meanwhile, searches about Rwanda in the East African region show a very different pattern. The top three search terms about Rwanda from those living in Uganda and Kenya are all related to jobs, and primarily come from three cities, Kampala, Nairobi, and Mombasa. Meanwhile, searches from within Rwanda about Uganda focused on news outlets, such as the Daily Monitor, New Vision, and “news Uganda” more generally. The most common searches in Rwanda about Kenya include Kenya Airways, the Daily Nation, and Kenyan universities.

Understanding search trends can be useful for businesses and entrepreneurs, but they are also a cheap and easy way to do public opinion polling. In the U.S., search trends of the past couple of months have tended to mirror official polling trends for presidential candidates in the Republican party, for example. If you look over time, you can see the rollercoaster levels of support for candidates such as Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich. In the U.S., regular and nationally representative polls are conducted throughout the campaign period, but the more informal “search” polling can be very informative as well, and far less expensive.

One challenge for using this type of data in countries like Rwanda and Uganda is that relatively few people are online, although the number of internet users is growing by the day. In Rwanda, approximately 13 percent of people accessed the Internet in 2010, up from 7.7 percent in 2009, according to the International Telecommunication Union. More and more people are using their mobile phones, rather than computers, to access the Internet, which makes it easier to get online. Although there may not be enough people using Google to get a good measure of public opinion in Rwanda, this will very likely be possible in the not-too-distant future.

Already, one can observe trends in public interest in politicians among those living in capital cities. Searches for “Besigye”, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s archrival, spiked within Kampala in November 2005, a few months prior to the heated 2006 presidential election, and spiked again to a lesser degree in February 2011, during the most recent election. It appears there was much more interest in Kizza Besigye leading up to the 2006 election (even with considerably fewer people online) than during the time leading up to the most recent elections, a trend which was reflected in Besigye’s support on election day as well. Online searches for Besigye spiked again in April, during the Walk-to-Work protests, but unfortunately for the repeat presidential candidate, by then the election had already passed. Despite the limited connectivity of the population living in Uganda, general election trends were evident in people’s online behavior.

Searches for "besigye" in Uganda, 2004-2011

Finally, search terms can be useful for tracking trends in infectious disease. When people fall sick, they often turn to the Internet for information about their symptoms or illness. Tracking search terms can thus identify and follow outbreaks of particular types of illnesses. Google Flu, for example, uses data on search terms to estimate trends in the spread of the flu virus. Again, their data is best for countries in which the majority of the population has access to the Internet, but as Internet connectivity increases in countries like Rwanda and Uganda, crowd-sourced data on infectious disease may help health officials identify and address outbreaks.

The wisdom of the crowd has for long eluded policymakers, investors, and even public health experts because it is costly to collect information from a large number of people, and people often have incentives to misrepresent their interests and beliefs. Using search trends, however, as one measure of people’s interests, opinions, and concerns, is one way to crowd-source information gathering in a relatively inexpensive and expedient manner.

Analyzing Africa: The Audacity of Despair

A new, defiant image

Published online at The Independent, Rwanda Edition, December 17, 2011

In 2000, the cover of The Economist pictured a boy wielding an AK47 inside the outline of the African continent, surrounded by black. “The hopeless continent,” the cover ominously read. At the time a combination of factors led the magazine and a whole host of bystanders to throw up their hands in despair, and mentally close the door to hope for the future of “Africa.” A decade later, The Economist, whose cover this week reads, “Africa rising” and many others, are waking up, wide-eyed, to realize the tremendous growth and progress that has been taking place on the continent all along. Progress has not been even, or without crushing reversals along the way. But given the history of development across the globe, it is entirely unclear why we should have anticipated linear progress, or lament its absence. Political, social, and economic development will carry on with or without handwringing at one extreme, or ululations at the other.

There have been at least two common mistakes in assessing progress (or the lack thereof) in “Africa,” which together have made for some rather wrongheaded analyses. First, there is a danger in conflating levels of development with development itself. It is obvious to all that levels of per capita income, education, and mortality, for example are lower on average in Africa than anywhere else. The issue of levels, however, is entirely different from change over time. Contrary to popular belief, improvement in both human and economic development was occurring in Africa before the dawn of the new millennium, just not everywhere. This leads me to the second analytic pitfall – the “Africa is a country” problem.

It is obvious to all that Africa is not a country but a continent, but analysis nonetheless often treats Africa as if it were one political, economic, or social unit. It is not. There is tremendous variation across the continent in both levels of development and rates of improvement over time. A failure to acknowledge the divergent paths countries have taken leads to the kind of essentialisation one tends to regret.

It is all too easy to essentialize. The mind recalls the most extreme cases, and remembers those that support prior beliefs. So in 2000, near the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, with flooding, drought, the Second Congo War, political crisis in Sierra Leone and a waffling UN Security Council, it was easy to create an image of Africa that was tearing itself to pieces. “Africa was weak before the Europeans touched its coasts. Nature is not kind to it,” wrote The Economist. “This may be the birthplace of mankind, but it is hardly surprising that humans sought other continents to live in.” Ouch.

As noted, it is true that levels of development, that is, income per capita, literacy, infant mortality, and many other measures of development, are comparatively far lower in sub-Saharan Africa, but all of this ignores the changes that have been taking place. In the 1990s, for instance, despite much pessimism, a number of countries held multi-party elections, a wave that started with Benin in 1991. While these countries would not become flourishing liberal democracies overnight, the 1990s would mark the beginning of the end of dictatorship as we know it.

There was also an effort to improve access to education, and the percentage of children completing primary school grew in a number of countries, including Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, The Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Malawi, Togo, and Uganda, albeit occasionally starting at very low levels. Gains in education were not achieved everywhere, and schooling declined in some countries, but this fact only further demonstrates the variation in performance across African countries.

The best news is that although improvement in education varied, improvements in health over the past several decades have been nearly universal. Since 1960, child mortality has fallen in every single African country for which there is data, with the possible exception of Somalia. Even in a country like the Central African Republic (CAR), notorious for its poor governance, under-5 mortality fell by half over the past fifty years, from 300 to just over 150 deaths per 1000 births. In 1960, just over one in three children born in CAR would not live to see their fifth birthday; today six out of seven will survive childhood. Moreover, in spite of the devastating HIV/AIDS pandemic, which has claimed millions of lives, the hardest hit African countries are rebounding, and child and maternal mortality rates are again declining in countries like Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.

Economically, the performance of African countries has been diverse for decades, with some countries consistently growing and others wallowing in economic misery. A number of African countries experienced periods of negative economic growth throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and into the 1990s, which, along with population growth throughout, meant that several had the same or even lower levels of per capita income in the 1990s than they had at independence.

Still, many countries began to see positive economic growth in the 1990s or earlier, including countries as diverse as Angola, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Congo (Brazzaville), Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Mozambique, Rwanda, Senegal, Uganda, and Zambia. Some of these economies are reliant on commodities such as oil and minerals, but service and other sectors comprise an increasing share of the economy in many countries, and regional trade has grown as well.

Average levels of development give Africa a bad name, but initial conditions were different from most of the rest of the world, and rates of improvement have often equaled or exceeded those in the developed world. As interest in Africa is piqued by double-digit economic growth figures and opportunities for investment, we will continue to see discussion of a part of the world most people inadvertently essentialize. Fortunately, I think the audacity of despair that has pervaded western thinking on Africa has left little in its wake other than egg on some faces. The audacity of hope has now come to the fore.

HIV in colonial Africa

Online this week in The Independent (Rwanda Edition): How public health efforts likely contributed to the early spread of HIV.

The Tragic Amplifier

Published online December 8, 2011.

This year marks the 90th anniversary, approximately, of the introduction of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) into the human population. It also marks thirty years since HIV was first scientifically recognized in 1981. Since the 1920s, this virus has spread across the globe and become the HIV/AIDS pandemic we are all too familiar with today. Most people consider the 1980s to be the beginning of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, but the virus had been prevalent in populations living in parts of central Africa for decades before it became a global nightmare.

New evidence from epidemiologist and international health expert Jacques Pepin suggests that human efforts to improve public health in central Africa were critical in facilitating the early spread of HIV, which has since claimed nearly 30 million lives. In the past two decades, massive coordination, mobilization, innovation, and investment have managed to slow the epidemic and save millions. As we mark World AIDS Day on December 1, 2011, HIV/AIDS is a reminder to us all of the tremendous power of human folly, but also of human triumph.

The Origins of AIDS, by Pepin, is a remarkable new book that pieces together the emergence of HIV in the human population, and its subsequent spread across the globe. HIV is the human version of simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), which has been present in chimpanzee populations of central Africa for hundreds of years. Human contact with chimpanzees led to at least one transmission of SIV to HIV in a human in the early 1920s, most likely a hunter or a cook living in central Africa, where the majority of SIV-carrying chimpanzees live. This transmission alone was extremely unlikely to have triggered an HIV epidemic, and indeed chimpanzee-to-human transmission could have occurred on separate occasions prior to the 1920s, but would not have spread far. An infected hunter may have passed HIV to his family members, but in all likelihood, the virus would have stopped there. Why did HIV begin to spread beyond a few infected individuals in the early 1920s?

Pepin argues that heterosexual transmission, which is the predominant mode of transmission of HIV today, could not alone have led to an outbreak of HIV on a scale that would trigger a pandemic. Thus, there must have been some kind of “amplifier” that allowed for very rapid transmission of HIV to many people at a time. And what was the mostly likely initial culprit in the amplification of the virus? Colonial public health campaigns involving widespread use of unsterilized syringes and needles.

In the 1930s and 1940s, colonial administrations in French Cameroon, the Belgian Congo, and elsewhere began massive public health campaigns to treat various infectious diseases, including yaws, syphilis, malaria, leprosy, and sleeping sickness, using syringes and needles which were not sterilized regularly, if at all (oral tablet versions of treatments were not available for these diseases at the time). Although there are no blood samples from this time period still in existence (the oldest blood sample in which HIV has been detected dates back to 1959, taken from a man living in Leopoldville, Congo, now known as Kinshasa), it is well documented that other less lethal viruses, like Hepatitis C, were transmitted via syringes in Cameroon, Gabon, and the Belgian Congo, among other colonies. It is not difficult to imagine that HIV could have been passed quickly through a population via syringe as well.

One clinic to treat sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in Leopoldville treated up to 1000 patients a day by the mid-1950s, with documented evidence that medical equipment was not sterilized between patients. To make matters worse, HIV was likely introduced into Leopoldville/Kinshasa at a time when there was a dramatic gender imbalance due to colonial policies. Urban areas like Leopoldville were often the equivalent of “work camps” in which wives and children were not welcome, which resulted in widespread prostitution, further facilitating the spread of HIV through heterosexual transmission.

HIV, which first spread through non-sterile syringes, often in clinics aimed at treating sexually transmitted diseases among men and sex workers in urban areas, kept at a steady prevalence through heterosexual transmission among the same population. In the colonial period, female sex workers, or “free women”, had only a few regular clients each year, but by the time of independence, female prostitutes would often see up to 1000 clients per year. This new type of prostitution greatly facilitated the transmission of HIV to populations beyond urban areas, and spread along major trades routes and cities in central and eastern Africa, including Kigali.

By 1984-85, Kigali, which at the time had a high ratio of males to females, and thriving prostitution, had the highest recorded HIV prevalence in the world, with 80 percent of prostitutes, 50 percent of STD patients, and 15-20 percent of blood donors, factory workers, and hospital employees testing positive for HIV. By 1987, HIV prevalence was at 17.8 percent in urban areas and jumped to 27 percent in urban areas by 1996.

From central Africa, HIV soon spread to Haiti, before being transmitted via multiple routes to the United States and beyond. Today, 34 million people are living with HIV/AIDS, and another 29 million have perished. That the spread of this virus was likely facilitated, and perhaps only possible, with the help of human technology and early public health campaigns should give us pause, and remind us of the terrifying potential for destruction due to human folly. As Pepin writes, “When humans manipulate nature in a way that they do not fully understand, there is always a possibility that something unpredictable will occur.”

Turning the tide on the spread of HIV/AIDS has taken decades, and millions have tragically lost their lives in the process. But the HIV/AIDS epidemic also demonstrates the amazing power of human innovation and cooperation that can take place on a global scale. Today, there are 6.6 million people receiving life-saving antiretroviral treatment, and both AIDS-related deaths and new HIV infections are declining in most parts of the world. The time, research, energy and money that have gone into tackling HIV has been phenomenal. If anything, we are now in danger of devoting too few resources to other health challenges that must also vie for the attention of the global health community and domestic health budgets.

HIV/AIDS is an extraordinarily painful reminder of the good intentions that can pave the road to hell, and of the unique capability of humans to create as well as destroy.

coding nerdery, absurdity

I won’t regale you with tales of my Stata/R crises (read: extreme and futile frustration over code), but I really loved this xkcd post (h/t @laurenrprather). The funniest things are those that are true, and hearing them makes you realize you are not alone in your absurdity.

HIV/AIDS: Human folly and triumph

Today is World AIDS Day. HIV has taken the lives of an estimated 29 million people around the world, and currently around 34 million people are infected. The effort of many individuals, organizations, and governments has led to a turnaround in the pandemic, infection rates and deaths due to AIDS are falling in most parts of the world. Still, there is a long way to go, and many people still do not have access to life-saving drugs.

A new book by Jacques Pepin, The Origins of AIDS, provides a remarkable account of how HIV initially spread among populations in central Africa, and later became the pandemic we know today. His sobering finding is that human efforts to treat and prevent disease with the use of non-sterilized syringes in colonial Africa very likely facilitated early and rapid HIV transmission. I discuss his work in this week’s column, excerpts of which is below.

HIV/AIDS: Human folly and triumph (published in this week’s Independent Rwanda Edition)

This year marks the 90th anniversary, approximately, of the introduction of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) into the human population. It also marks thirty years since HIV was first scientifically recognized in 1981. Since the 1920s, this virus has spread across the globe and become the HIV/AIDS pandemic we are all too familiar with today. Most people consider the 1980s to be the beginning of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, but the virus had been prevalent in populations living in parts of central Africa for decades before it became a global nightmare.

New evidence from epidemiologist and international health expert Jacques Pepin suggests that human efforts to improve public health in central Africa were critical in facilitating the early spread of HIV, which has since claimed nearly 30 million lives. In the past two decades, massive coordination, mobilization, innovation, and investment have managed to slow the epidemic and save millions. As we mark World AIDS Day on December 1, 2011, HIV/AIDS is a reminder to us all of the tremendous power of human folly, but also of human triumph.

*                   *                   *

Turning the tide on the spread of HIV/AIDS has taken decades, and millions have tragically lost their lives in the process. But the HIV/AIDS epidemic also demonstrates the amazing power of human innovation and cooperation that can take place on a global scale. Today, there are 6.6 million people receiving life-saving antiretroviral treatment, and both AIDS-related deaths and new HIV infections are declining in most parts of the world. The time, research, energy and money that have gone into tackling HIV has been phenomenal. If anything, we are now in danger of devoting too few resources to other health challenges that must also vie for the attention of the global health community and domestic health budgets.

HIV/AIDS is an extraordinarily painful reminder of the good intentions that can pave the road to hell, and of the unique capability of humans to create as well as destroy.