What’s up with West Nile?

West Nile virus, that is. A widespread outbreak in the U.S. has attracted renewed attention to the virus, which acquired its name from West Nile, Uganda, although there is no evidence that it originated there. Unfair, isn’t it? The virus was first isolated in Omogo, West Nile district, Uganda, in 1937, by researchers at the Yellow Fever Research Institute, then based in Entebbe. According to a 1940 article by Smithburn et al. in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene:

In attempting to isolate virus numerous persons were seen who were suffering either from an illness suggesting yellow fever, or from pyrexia of unknown cause. From many such persons blood was drawn, and as soon as possible thereafter the serum was in oculated intracerebrally2 into mice. Subinoculations were done from mice which became ill. In this manner several transmissible infective agents were isolated.

The purpose of this paper is to report the isolation of one such agent, which we call the West Nile virus, and to describe some of its properties. Although this virus was isolated from the blood of a human being, the circumstances of its isolation were such that nothing is known regarding the illness produced by the virus in the human subject.

That the virus was identified in West Nile should, if anything, be a testament to the medical contributions that have been made from the region, but it is more likely to have inspired notoriety. West Nile virus outbreaks have occurred all over the world, but the virus was not identified in North America until 1999.

West Nile virus is carried by mosquitoes, which acquire the virus from infected birds. In rare cases (only about 1 in 150 cases), severe viral infection is characterized by “high fever, headache, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, vision loss, numbness and paralysis“, according to the CDC. Up to 80% of those infected, however, do not experience any symptoms.

Current map of West Nile activity in the U.S.:

CDC surveillance of West Nile virus in the U.S., activity as of August 21, 2012

Home at last in Mogadishu

In the Somalia of today, comedians are murdered for telling jokes and journalist butchered for telling the truth. Certainly this cannot be the time for developing a constitution. I cannot but conclude that the constitutional process is nothing more than an attempt by the international community to make legitimate their engagement and support to a government they have conceived and created.  Somalia’s new elite has found in the current arrangement an environment conducive for their emergence and growth – and it is here that a marriage between the uninformed and the ambitious begins and the constitution becomes their marriage certificate.
I left Mogadishu feeling both hopeful and sad. Hopeful because of the colorful exhibition of humanity to survive extremes, dust itself off and launch a comeback. I was hopeful because in AMISOM, we see Africans attempting to solve their problems. Saddened, because I fear forces of primitive association are gaining strength. As for my own personal journey, I left feeling Somali and certainly more African than ever before. This journey laid some of my personal ghosts to rest. Yes, I am Somali and yes I am African with a billion fellow travellers.

That is Mo Yaxye in The Independent, “Coming home to Mogadishu“.

Dying to be President

Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia is only the most recent of a series of African leaders to die while in office. Prof. John Atta-Mills of Ghana passed away in July, and Malawi’s Bingu wa Mutharika before that. Rumors continually swirl about the health of other current presidents, including Zimbabwe’s octogenarian, Robert Mugabe. The health of leaders is often veiled in secrecy, which can make it difficult to plan for potential transitions.

In the days immediately following the death of Atta-Mills, many of those I spoke to in Ghana were sad, but also a little angry. How could he dance and jog on his return from a medical check-up in the US when he knew he was so sick? Former president Jerry Rawlings gave a frank, if rather callous, assessment on the BBC: “I think had he been advised and done something wiser, you know, earlier on, he could have probably survived, you know, for, I don’t know, for another six-seven months…” There was a feeling expressed by some people I spoke to that Prof. Atta-Mills should have taken time off, and taken care of himself. This calls to a more general problem — the secrecy enshrouds the health of leaders sets up governments for moments of crisis. Fortunately, Ghana and Malawi have both managed to pull through with successful transitions, but others may not be so lucky.

Songwe and Kimenyi examine this issue in their op-ed, “The Health of African Leaders: A Call for More Transparency” at Brookings:

As the number of ailing presidents increases, three major issues are emerging: First, the continent demands more transparency regarding it’s leaders’ health; second, democracies need clear term limits; and third, successful democratic transitions require transition processes outlined in the constitution, that are understood and familiar to all. With these safeguards in place, the risks of administrative paralysis, political tension, internal conflict and instability that characterize situations in many African countries could be mitigated. Unfortunately, in many African countries today there is a general lack of clarity around term limits and even less clarity and agreement on succession: Term limits are changed on a rolling basis, and constitutions are amended frequently.

Ghana through a lens

I recently returned to Kampala from three weeks in Ghana — Accra, Tamale, Upper East and Upper West. My visit coincided with the untimely passing of Ghana’s president, John Atta-Mills, the swearing in of new president John Dramani Mahama (who, coincidentally, just published his book, My First Coup d’Etat), and the three day funeral that followed. Below are some shots from around the country:

University of Ghana, Legon
Basilica of St. Theresa, Nandom, Upper West
Tamale, Ghana
A city in mourning, Accra, Ghana