An Effective Ebola Vaccine Has Been Developed

Following a horrific epidemic in West Africa that claimed the lives of over 11,000 people — the deadliest the world had ever seen — we finally have a breakthrough vaccine against Ebola. As Vox.com reported:

Today, the same researchers — who hail from the World Health Organization, Guinea’s Ministry of Health, Public Health England, and other international partners — have unveiled their final results in the Lancet, and they’re just as remarkable. The vaccine was tested in a trial involving nearly 12,000 people in Guinea and Sierra Leone during 2015 and 2016. Among the 5,837 people who got the vaccine, no Ebola cases were recorded. By comparison, there were 23 Ebola cases in the control group that had not gotten the vaccine.

“This trial, confirming the 100 percent efficacy of the rVSV Ebola vaccine, is a simply remarkable outcome”, Dr. Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust, said of the research. “We’ve shown that by working collaboratively, across international borders and sectors, we can develop and test vaccines rapidly and use them to help bring epidemics to an end”.

You can read the published study here. It was one of fifteen clinical trials for an Ebola vaccine conducted around the world in a single year, and is a vindication of what collective action and responsibility by the international community — including the U.N., NGOs, and national governments — can accomplish. It is a shame it took so many deaths spanning a nearly three year period to finally come up with a promising form of prevention, although the vaccine is far from ready to hit the market.  Continue reading

Nepal’s Citizens Step Up To Heal Nation

An often unreported part of almost any disaster response is the pivotal role played by the victims themselves. Whether directly impacted or not, citizens from all overall the affected country come together to help one another and recovery.

NPR highlights how the beleaguered people of Nepal, long misgoverned and impoverished, have persevered through collaboration and generosity against one of the deadliest disasters in their nation’s history. Continue reading

The Langar of Sikhism

Among world religions, Sikhism is among the most fascinating to me. During my period of religious uncertainty, when my exploration other faiths was at its height (though by no means diminished since), the Sikhs were of particular interest, their history, culture, attire, symbols, and doctrines were all quite engaging (though I admit that in those young years, the exoctiism of it all probably played a bigger role than anything).

One aspect of Sikhism that I deeply respect and admire, especially as a Secular Humanist, is the langara public kitchen and canteen that freely feeds any visitors regardless of faith or background.

Even in communities wherein Sikhs are minorities, the langar tradition is maintained, as the BBC reported:

For the volunteers handing out food here, this is more than just good charitable work. For them this is a religious duty enshrined by the founder of the Sikh religion, Guru Nanak, over 500 years ago. At a time of deep division by caste and religious infighting between Hindus and Muslims in India, Guru Nanak called for equality for all and set forward the concept of Langar — a kitchen where donated produce, prepared into wholesome vegetarian curry by volunteers, is freely served to the community on a daily basis.

Today, thousands of free Langar meals are served every day in Sikh temples throughout the UK. The Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara in Southall, thought to be the biggest Sikh temple outside of India, says it alone serves 5,000 meals on weekdays and 10,000 meals on weekends. Every Sikh has the duty to carry out Seva, or selfless service, says Surinder Singh Purewal, a senior member of the temple management team. “It means we’re never short of donations or volunteers to help prepare the Langar.”

It is good to highlight the charity and good deeds of other religious or cultural groups, especially those that are often marginalized, misunderstood, or simply unknown.

While I obviously put no stock in religion, I do make a point to acknowledge and support those doctrines that, while grounded in faith, on a deeper level stem reflect a humanistic values. Compassion and generosity are to be encouraged in whatever form they take, so long as the motivation is sincere and altruistic (e.g. not about divine favor or command).

Here are some photos of langar courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Small Christmas Truce

Many readers have probably already heard of the famous Christmas Truce that occurred on the Western Front of the First World War in 1914. Although largely overshadowed by the sheer scale of death and brutality that characterized this first truly global conflict, it nonetheless continues to inspire people generations later with its message of hope and humanity amidst even the most unlikely circumstances.

As we all know, the Second World War would eventually outdo its predecessor by an unspeakable margin, both in death and barbarism. Given the existential nature of that conflict, a similar truce on the scale of World War I’s was unlikely, and indeed there’s no record of any such good will having occurred — except for one small but powerful event.

On a snowy Christmas Eve in 1944, a German woman named Elisabeth Vincken, who lived on the Belgian-German border, was preparing Christmas dinner with her 12-year-old son Fritz, when they heard a surprising knock on the door: three American soldiers, one of whom was badly injured, had gotten lost in the midst of the brutal Battle of the Bulge, the last major conflict on the Western Front.

Although they were armed, the soldiers, who looked no older than their mid-teens, didn’t burst in. She took pity on them and invited them in from the cold for Christmas dinner — an offense punishable by death (neither side spoke the other’s language, but they got by on broken French).

As she and her son prepared their food, there was another knock at the door; a 23-year-old German corporal and three other soldiers (two only sixteen) wanted to wish her a Merry Christmas, but were lost and hungry. Despite the incredible risk, Elisabeth told them that they were welcome to come, but there were others inside who they would not consider friends. The corporal asked sharply if there were Americans inside and she said there were — and they were lost, cold, and hungry like they were. When he stared her down, she stood her ground and asserted: “It is the Holy Night and there will be no shooting here.” She then asked both the Germans and the Americans to leave their guns outside and come together for dinner, which they all surprisingly did.

Despite the initial (and understandable) tension, relations between the men became cordial after dinner, with both sides shedding tears when Elisabeth said grace. The Germans even provided some wine and bread, and one of them, an ex-medical student, tended to the wounded America. This truce lasted through the night and into the morning. The German corporal told the Americans the best way to get back to their lines and provided them with a map and compass; he even told them how to avoid German territory. In the morning, all the soldiers took their respective weapons, shook hands, and left in opposite directions.

Elisabeth, her son, and her husband survived the war, although all three have since passed away. The fate of all but one of the soldiers is unknown: Ralph Bank, an American, still kept the compass and map provided by the corporal that saved his life. Bank would eventually meet up with an older Frtiz decades later, thanking him and his mother for taking them in.

Though this was a mere flicker of hope and goodwill relative to the massive level of death and suffering that transpired before and after, it’s nonetheless an important reminder of the capacity for human beings to transcend violence and hatred even in the most unlikely circumstances.

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Huge Water Reserve Discovered in Kenya

The massive aquifer discovered holds 900% more water than all of Kenya’s existing sources — enough to meet all of its needs for 70 years. UNESCO and the Kenyan government — with funding by Japan — had been using satellite, radar and geological technology in a bid to find supplies of water — and will continue to do so in hopes of finding more. Similar endeavors are being undertaken throughout Africa to help other water-stricken nations.

The big question now is how this bounty will be managed: will be reliably nationalized by a government known for its rampant corruption, or will private corporations — no more likely to trustworthy or selfless — be contracted? Is there an alternative? What are your thoughts? 

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Homeless Man Donates Handouts to Fellow Homeless

This exemplary human being has given away over $9,000 he’s collected through panhandling to a fellow homeless mother and child. When many better off people can’t be bothered with giving the less fortunate the time of day, a man who is scarcely getting by still find the means and the love to give to others. This is a very inspiring story. I especially like the news anchors statement towards the end.

Hat tip to my friend Ray for sharing this with me.

If you want to watch a unique and excellent Christmas-themed film, consider this one.

I hope everyone has a safe, relaxing, and fun holiday. The tragedies and difficulties that have plagued us this past year, especially very recently, have made moments with loved ones all the more precious. Make every second count.

Sarvodaya

Last night I watched a French film titled Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas), which was about the famous Christmas Truce that transpired on the Western Front of World War I. This was an informal ceasefire that occurred spontaneously on Christmas Eve, and it included exchanges of gifts, a few matches of soccer, and even the singing of Christmas carols. Needless to say, it was a remarkable, if sadly short-lived, event. How often do we hear of soldiers in the midst of battle deciding to not only lay down their arms, but also mingle with one another in the spirit of brotherhood?

Though I learned about this touching event years ago, I had never seen or heard of any cinematic portrayal of it (the movie was released only in 2005). The film is not groundbreaking or extraordinary, but it gives an intimate view of a horrible and tragic conflict that is punctuated by a spark of…

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Aristides de Sousa Mendes

Aristides de Sousa Mendes

Aristides de Sousa Mendes was a Portuguese diplomat who, during WWII, defied his own government and issued Portuguese visas free of charge to over 30,000 refugees seeking to escape the Nazis (Portugal was officially neutral at the time). For this he was fired, denied a pension, and denounced by his government, friends, and colleagues. He died in disgrace and poverty in 1954, but never regretted his decision.