In an era before antibiotics, blood tests and digital scanning thermometers; In an era before EKG's, stethoscopes, blood transfusions and even refrigeration; In an era before doctors, science and even a rudimentary understanding of human anatomy, there was the ancient Jewish dietary law of kosher, which continues to offer a lesson for today's fractured societies of western Africa struggling to contain the Ebola epidemic.
Centuries ago, with an understanding of microbes and hygiene still far in the future, Jews observed that those who ate meat from sick or dead animals would often fall ill and die. Similar woes could result from animals not consumed in a timely way after being slaughtered. While they didn't know of trichinosis, they also saw that eating pork could be fatal. Shellfish and fish without scales contained a similar lethal threat. The rich and frothy milk of that time could produce gastro illness when served with meat.
While the society was agrarian, life was harsh and painfully short and government was the oppressive rule of hostile royalty, there was an understanding among Jews that certain culinary behavior triggered serious illness. As a result, dietary laws were put into place by an observant community that sought to protect the individual and public health. They were then codified by religious leaders for the purpose of creating a collective societal memory of what the faithful could and could not consume. Rabbis became, in essence, the health department of their time, providing approved animal certification prior to slaughter.
Today, in western African countries, where Ebola has left villages and towns looking like the plague-stricken Medieval communities of Europe, the lessons of how and why kosher laws were created and sustained have a practical application for those struggling to subdue Ebola. Like plague-wracked Europe in the mid-1300s, cultural patterns play a significant role in shaping how the disease spreads among West Africans. For example, West African funeral ceremonies traditionally mandate the kissing of the deceased body or touching the corpse in a final farewell. In addition, a communal meal is often observed while sitting beside the dead. Seeking to prevent these practices, doctors have warned that these rituals expose scores to the Ebola virus at its most virulent stage.
In addition, superstition is alive and well in West Africa. Much as Jews were accused and attacked for supposedly spreading the plague in the 14th century because their dietary and sanitary rituals gave them a slight edge in preventing disease, doctors in West Africa have been attacked on suspicion they are actually infecting people with the disease rather than combating it.
Health workers in West Africa are sometimes accused of spreading Ebola and attacked. (Image source: Luigi Baldelli/Flickr)
As our national focus remains centered on preventing the further intrusion of Ebola in the United States, and the international medical effort seeks to contain the disease, it is time to go beyond the plasma, vaccines and science SWAT teams now on the ground. Sociologists and anthropologists can play an equally critical role by taking a page from the ancient kosher laws drafted by Jewish elders by beginning the task of changing critical aspects of tribal culture. This will help ensure that Ebola and other future viral borne diseases meet a firewall of prevention based on an individual's revised cultural behavior and the adjusted collective response from the larger community. The village elders, traditional healers and church leaders all must become part of the response network that alters the cultural behavior patterns that currently give Ebola a virtual highway to further infect and decimate. They need to be made part of the affirmative process of changing cultural and tribal behavior to prevent disease.
In the centuries since the Jews wove their kosher rules into their religious rituals, science has established why those intuitive laws imposed on their community made so much sense. Today, some might argue that applying kosher laws in an era of electricity, hygiene, regulatory oversight of food production and a health care infrastructure of extraordinary depth makes them all irrelevant. Or have they? When we learn of agribusiness contamination, salmonella outbreaks, seabed toxins and similar threats to the food chain, those centuries-old kosher laws seem more relevant than ever.
In a land where official corruption robs West Africans of basic necessities and a sorely tested international medical community can't plug the gaps in preventing new Ebola cases fast enough, it's time to take a page from what the Jews wrote long ago and use these fundamental principles as part of the response required to stop a 21st century plague.