What technology can do, and what it cannot do
"Within an hour of receiving the medication, Brantly's condition was nearly reversed. His breathing improved; the rash over his trunk faded away. One of his doctors described the events as 'miraculous'," reported CNN, citing sources with firsthand knowledge of the situation.
Of course, this was not a controlled experiment, so it can't be taken as proven in a scientific sense that the serum caused the recovery (as with most diseases, some people who get Ebola recover spontaneously), but this is about as good non-experimental evidence gets. Assuming Brantly and his colleague continue to recover, it is no longer true that there is no cure for Ebola.
The technologies involved in modern mass hygiene are far simpler and humbler -- soap, availability of clean water, toilets -- and they've been around a lot longer. Even in Roman times, major cities had sewer systems, because heaven help you if you cram a million people together in an urban setting without some systematic means of waste disposal.
I've posted occasionally about the perplexing problem of defecation in public places in India, which officials there have tried to combat by everything from installing free toilets to producing amusing videos. It's not working, because contrary to what Westerners might assume, the problem is not unavailability of toilets, but rather cultural and religious attitudes.
Only dalits, the lowest Hindu caste, should be exposed to excrement in a closed space, "or city-dwellers who don’t have space to go in the open," said Sunita, who uses one name, as she washed clothes next to the concrete latrine. "Feces don’t belong under the same roof as where we eat and sleep."
"Targets for construction of toilets are somewhat irrelevant to resolving the sanitation problem," said Yamini Aiyar, director of policy research group Accountability Initiative in New Delhi. "Building toilets does not mean that people will use them and there seems to be a host of cultural, social and caste-based reasons for that. People need to be taught the value of sanitation".....In at least five of India’s poorest states, the majority of people in households with a government latrine don’t use it, according to a survey of 3,200 rural households by the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics in the capital.
The Indian government has been trying for decades to deal with this problem, with apparently almost no success. Yes, inefficiency and incompetence are part of the reason, but millions of free latrines have been provided. The real problem is that making the tools available doesn't help much when masses of people reject the scientific understanding of healthful behavior because of traditional beliefs and attitudes.
And beliefs and attitudes have consequences. Public defecation spreads disease. Its consequences in India include 600,000 deaths from diarrhea per year. The west African Ebola outbreak so far has killed somewhat fewer than one thousand people, but India suffers far more deaths than that per day from foolish ideas that perpetuate a terrible failure of public sanitation.
Even in the case of Ebola, ignorance and superstition have inflated the death toll as people reject science-based advice on basic precautions that could help them avoid the disease. ZMapp could probably save many lives in west Africa, but only behavioral changes could really stop the spread of the disease. For that matter, the anti-vaccine crazies in the US are another example of the same problem.
Technology can provide the tools to work what seem like miracles. It cannot overcome the beliefs that lead people to refuse them. To accomplish that, other means must be used.