Thursday, 30 July 2015

Beating the Malevolent 'Intelligent Designer'

Poliovirus (bar = 5nm)
Photo Credit: F.P. Williams, U.S. EPA
Nigeria's polio-free year sees Africa inch closer to eradication - New Scientist

The great news for creationists is that we are on the verge of defeating their malevolent 'Intelligent (sic) Designer'. How can that be good news for creationists? Read on.

One especially nasty little invention of this invisible magic entity (for those who've fallen for the hoax) is the virus that cause poliomyelitis, normally, but not exclusively, in children, hence its formerly common name, 'infantile paralysis'. It couldn't have evolved so it must have been designed, and design always has a purpose, if you've swallowed the hoax. So creationists have no alternative but to accept that their imaginary friend is hideously malevolent.

It might well be extinct within a year or so in Africa, despite the best efforts of religious fundamentalists to prevent it, thanks to medical science.

Polio, as it's also called, strikes without warning. In 90-95% of cases it causes no symptoms at all, in most of the other 5-10% if cause flu-like symptoms including diarrhoea, vomiting, aching muscles and head ache. Recovery normally takes about a week or two. In the other 0.5% however, it often kills and rarely leaves the survivors unmarked. Many of them will be seriously physically handicapped, often dependent on others or on technology to stay alive. The 90-95% of asymptomatic or mildly sick victims nevertheless act as factories for making millions more viruses.

Let none admire
That riches grow in Hell; that Soyle may best
Deserve the precious bane.

John Milton, 1667
It was once regarded as a punishment for sin, often not a punishment on the sufferer but on their parents who had to care for a handicapped child who had been perfectly fit and healthy a few days earlier. My maternal grandparents bore the burden of guilt for my aunt's handicap and she never married because she felt she was unworthy. God would not have made her a cripple for nothing. Although polio left her with only a relatively minor handicap - a pronounced limp - the stigma of it dominated her life.

The cause is infection of the nervous system by poliovirus which is a subtype of Enterovirus C. It only infects humans. It consists of a single strand of RNA encapsulated in a simple protein. It is believed to be one of the simplest of all viruses and is believed to have evolved by mutation from the ancestor of another human enterovirus, Coxsackie A.

The poliovirus appears to do nothing other than make more copies of poliovirus and in doing so makes humans ill, killing or seriously handicapping mostly children as it does so. Given that design is always for a purpose, believers in the Intelligent Design hoax have to believe that the poliovirus was designed to harm humans and for no other purpose.

This is an eradication project, and unless we get to zero cases we're not going to finish this disease. Nigeria will need to keep immunising and protecting the population.
Oliver Rosenbaum, WHO
But we're on the verge of defeating polio, just as we defeated smallpox and rinderpest. There are several vaccines but the most widely used is that developed by Albert Sabin. This is an 'attenuated' form of the virus which is given orally. It replicates quickly in the gut - its 'normal' human habitat - but it can't infect the nervous system and is thus harmless. However, it is recognised by the human immune system which produces antibodies for all three serotypes.

Those so immunised are not only protected but also can't pass on infection, so reducing the rate of transmission even where the 'wild' virus is endemic - the so-called 'herd immunity'. This means that we don't have to vaccinate everyone in a population, just enough to reduce the rate of new infection below a threshold, at which point the virus is on a trajectory to local extinction. The virus doesn't live in the soil, or in other animals, so when it no longer infects humans, it is effectively extinct.

Against all odds and despite the best efforts of Boko Haram (education is evil) Islamic fundamentalists whose leader believes in a flat earth, to disrupt the WHO effort, Nigeria has recorded no new polio cases in the last 12 months. Somalia is due to reach that milestone on August 11, at which point, the whole of Africa will have been polio-free for an entire year.

The only two countries where there is significant incidence of polio are now Afghanistan and Pakistan - where the main obstacle to eradication is again Islamic fundamentalism. The most vociferous advocates of Intelligent Design outside the USA seem to be doing their utmost to make sure one of their putative designer's more malevolent 'designs' continues to harm children. Meanwhile, many Christian fundamentalist creationists inside the USA militantly oppose vaccination campaigns and use the same disinformation and appeals to ignorant incredulity as they do to promote creationism.

There seems to be a pattern here.

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