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September 24, 2018

When opportunity knocks, who answers?

The HIV Virus
The HIV Virus

The solar system, which includes planet earth, is estimated to be 4.6 billion years old. Almost all of the solar system’s mass about 99.8 per cent is made up of the sun.

Jupiter is the largest planet and in terms of mass, is 2.5 times that of the rest of the solar system combined. Together with Saturn, as the two largest planets, they take up more than 90 per cent of the mass of all planets.

Uranus and Neptune, which follow in size and are roughly equal in mass make up just 5 per cent. Despite being so huge, Jupiter is made of gas, primarily hydrogen and helium and so in terms of density it is like a cotton candy or candyfloss.

The planet Earth, despite being 300 times smaller than Jupiter, is solid and critically has water enabling life to survive and thrive. The other planets, Mercury, Venus and Mars, are smaller than Earth. Apart from these relatively large planets, the solar system also contains asteroids and moons, some of which orbit the larger planets.

One of the most prominent moons or dwarf planets is Ceres, which orbits around Jupiter. Despite being just 950 kilometres across, the distance from Mombasa to Busia, Ceres is believed to contain large amounts of water beneath its surface; Astronomers estimate that it may have more water than all the fresh water on Earth.

From March 6th after 8 years in flight, an American spacecraft ‘Vesta’, was expected to descend within 375km of Ceres’s surface, investigating whether Ceres has ever hosted life.

Other than the enormous significance if life is discovered there, is how the planet came to be named Ceres. Because when Ceres was first discovered, in 1801 by the Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi, he did not know rocky core and an icy mantle. Still he named it after Ceres the ancient Roman religion goddess of agriculture and grain crops fertility. Ceres would today be considered a scientist as she is credited by the Romans with having discovered spelt wheat, a hybrid form of the common wheat we all know. She had the power to fertilise and multiply plant seed, and her laws and rites protected all activities of the agricultural cycle.

Before Ceres’ discovery, man was believed to be a hunter-gatherer. In those ancient times the Romans celebrated Ceres through the Cerealia festival, which was held in April and included circus games.

Today much of that agricultural knowledge and practice is available for us to utilise yet many do not take advantage of the opportunity and continue to have habits that are very close to those of ancient hunter-gathers. Why this is so is difficult to understand, perhaps the knowledge is still hidden by the gods and the right prayer is needed. But there is another way and that is to observe those living things that take advantage of every opportunity available. And this is not an article about politicians.

Opportunity is a set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something, but when people talk about opportunity, it isn’t always clear whether it is something you find along the way to it is something you make yourself.

In the case of certain bacteria, viruses and fungus it appears that they lie in wait for a misstep in our immune system to live merry and unchecked causing havoc and even death. In our environment one of the most common opportunistic infections is tuberculosis.

Until the early 1980s it was in slow decline but the emergence of HIV/Aids has led to a resurgence of TB. In Kenya today, about 100,000 cases are diagnosed every year. This is despite a program to immunise every newborn with TB vaccine.

Part of the problem can be seen that where TB is rare, there is no need to immunise children because the vaccine itself is a strain of the TB bacteria that has been treated so that it is no longer infective. Prevention is caused by exposing the newborn’s immune system to a weakened form of the disease so that they can develop antibodies to the real thing.

It works until and unless the person’s immune system weakens, which is what happens in HIV infection. So even though the body has the knowledge of what to do it cannot fight the real TB and the opportunity is lost.

When you read about the solar system, how old it is and the work going on to discover what is going on, it can be difficult to relate that bit of science to immediate health problems in Kenya. But there are lessons.

The Romans two thousand years ago were able to discover hybrids of wheat, the Americans in 2015 have a spacecraft that has travelled 564 million kilometres; yet we still have people in our society, some in powerful positions, who think they can solve society’s problems by reacting to what the media says every morning. "The trouble with opportunity is that it always comes disguised as hard work." Anonymous
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