Wash Your Hands Thoroughly and Often

Call me paranoid, or perhaps just realistic, but I think it is pretty clear that the end is always near. It could be an earthquake, catastrophic climate change, an asteroid or, what the heck, even a zombie outbreak that does us all in. One of the most feared, yet oddly fascinating, paths to destruction is an epidemic disease “event.” I think withering away from disease is so dreaded not only because it would be a horrific way to go, but it seems so plausible. You only have to look at the past, both recent and ancient, to find possible candidates for a disease to do us in.

Let’s start with some symptoms:

Severe headache, weakness, general malaise and pains of varying severity in the muscles and joints, especially in the back. The patient feels as though he had been beaten all over with a club.

This is how you would feel, at first, if you were unfortunate enough to contract a deadly strain of influenza as described in American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic by Nancy Bristow.  Bristow focuses on the American experience of the worst pandemic in recorded history which claimed 50 million lives worldwide and over half a million in the United States.  The author uses individual accounts and primary sources to paint an intimate and disturbing picture of the outbreak as it unfolds. She also brings to light the curious way society, once a pandemic is over, tries to forget it ever happened.

Almost all of Plasmodium’s maneuvers inside the body occur in utter secrecy. When it slips into the body, while it hides in the liver, and even after it emerges into the bloodstream and attacks blood cells, there is no itch, no rash, no sweaty forehead that belies the infestation roiling within.

This chilling description is from The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years by Sonia Shah. Shah is an investigative reporter who skillfully describes Malaria’s parasitic relationship with humanity and our catastrophic inability to control, let alone eradicate it. Her dogged examination reveals that it is not only the disease itself but the attitudes of those who do not live in tropical climates that allow the scourge to thrive.

Once inside the animal, pestis travels through the bloodstream to the lymph nodes, where it starts to replicate. Eventually the lymph nodes swell and become the huge, boggy, exquisitely painful mass we know as bubo.

Yes, it is the dreaded Plague, or Black Death, as described in Wendy Orent’s Plague: The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World’s Most Dangerous Disease. A truly apocalyptic disease, wiping out 40% of the European population during the Middle Ages, the plague has shaped human history and still inspires terror. Despite the advent of antibiotics, Orent tells us, the plague is far from a thing of the past and not only survives but thrives in many parts of the world as it continues to evolve. Worse yet, the weaponization of the disease is far from fiction.

To read the history of epidemics is to follow a long story of the fears that go beyond the dread of death, the anxieties that make us who we are.

This intriguing nugget is from Dread: How Fear and Fantasy Have Fueled Epidemics from the Black Death to the Avian Flu by Philip Alcabes. Through health statistics and a study of historical epidemics, Alcabes makes a persuasive argument that our fear of catastrophic disease far outweighs the reality. This fear whether real or imagined, not only reveals the mores of the time but can lead to destructive and counterproductive actions. Most disturbing of all, the author illustrates how individuals and institutions use the fear of epidemics to push their own agendas.

So maybe I am just being paranoid. But then again, why does everyone seem to be coughing?


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