April 29, 2002
Two cool stories in last

Two cool stories in last week's economist:

Animal self-medication:

For the past decade Dr Engel, a lecturer in environmental sciences at Britain's Open University, has been collating examples of self-medicating behaviour in wild animals. She recently published a book on the subject. In a talk at the Edinburgh Science Festival earlier this month, she explained that the idea that animals can treat themselves has been regarded with some scepticism by her colleagues in the past. But a growing number of animal behaviourists now think that wild animals can and do deal with their own medical needs.

Eradicating Polio (premium story, subscription required):

Somalia is a particularly tough spot. It has been shredded by civil war since 1991. There is no state, unless you count a “transitional national government” that controls a few streets in the capital, Mogadishu. The rest of the country is controlled by warlords who, as the Americans discovered in 1993, are difficult to deal with. Yet somehow the anti-polio campaigners have managed it.

In each area, they seek the local warlord's permission before carrying out hut-to-hut vaccinations. They are careful to hire members of all the big local clans to help, and to rent the cars they need—but no more—from whomever the local warlord nominates. The cars come with drivers and Kalashnikov-toting guards, but cannot be used to transport vaccines over long distances. If driven to a rival clan's territory, they are liable to be hijacked.

In Somalia, the men with guns make the rules. The WHO has to adapt to this, just as the locals do. Somali women make money by building stick-and-plastic shacks at roadblocks and selling tea to waiting travellers. The WHO has followed suit, placing a vaccinator with a coolbox at every possible roadblock to catch peripatetic children. In their own bossy way, the men with guns thus help.


To reach more dangerous areas, the vaccinators wait for a gap in the fighting, and then pounce. There is a polio officer in every district. Some sleep in a different house each night to avoid kidnap, for people with foreign employers are assumed to be rich. Whenever it looks safe enough to fly in the coolboxes, they shout. With luck, their task is nearly done: no new infections have been reported in Somalia this year.

The people doing this work are incredibly courageous, and are mostly doing it without recognition. Read more about WHO's efforts; donate here.

Posted by Bill Stilwell at April 29, 2002 12:00 AM
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