The Plague


As a kid I never lost sleep over ghosts or monsters under the bed; clowns were another matter, they gave me nightmares. Not fooled by grease paint and oversized shoes, I was quite convinced clowns were a secret army of malevolent  soldiers, with an agenda of unspeakable horrors, I avoided them like the plague.

Oddly enough, my sleepless nights stemmed almost exclusively from unstoppable diseases or unfortunate calamity. Ebola, a haemorrhagic virus lurking in the darkest of jungles, dissolving your body until death mercifully took you when nothing was left of your former self but a puddle of dissolving mush. Spontaneous human combustion couldn’t be “caught”, nor could it be avoided – night terror central. Tapeworms, black widow spiders,  all delivered gut churning worry. Corners of my mind gathered the dust of circumstance beyond my control – monsters and goblins could be defeated using clever strategy and wits, but try as I might defence against perils of our natural world eluded me. When I learned about Smallpox and how it eradicated indigenous people in the Americas I nearly lost my mind. Since my sister had eczema doctors advised against immunizing our family for Smallpox. My mother’s assurance there hadn’t been a case for years did little for my sleepless nights; I wasn’t buying it – if everything was sunshine and roses, then why were children still being immunized?

As I grew older anguish faded; common sense replaced secret hysteria, maturity delivered me from the curse of night panic. It wasn’t until the early 80’s dropped the AIDS bomb, and friends started dropping like flies that dread invaded my thoughts again. Then came bird flu, SARS, and H1N1.

Now reports of Bubonic Plague identified in Los Angeles squirrels has me thinking – holy crap. Three campgrounds in the Angeles National Forest were evacuated and closed as a precaution after routine tests turned up a plaguey squirrel. It surprised me to learn on average seven people are infected with “the plague” in the U.S. every year, since 1984 four cases of plague have been diagnosed in LA County and none were fatal. Bubonic plague is a bacterial rather than a viral infection. Properly identified and treated with antibiotics the “black death” appears treatable – apparently far more manageable than the black death responsible for the deaths of 25 million people in the middle ages. Transmitted by flea bites, rats were the medieval carriers – squirrel couriers freak me out.

http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/07/26/bubonic-plague-infested-squirrel-shuts-down-los-angeles-county-national-park/

North Americans twenty years ago had never heard of West Nile Virus, Dengue Fever or Bubonic Plague outside fictional stories or the occasional National Geographic magazine in the doctor’s waiting room. Black Death lived in medieval history classes, Malaria and Typhus only happened some place else.

No longer that child, and thankfully not an obsessive compulsive adult with handwashing or germ phobias, I welcome a little  bacteria in my life. Avoiding antibiotics unless absolutely necessary, washing my hands with soap and water rather than hand sanitizer, and playing it cool with “antibacterial” everything. A few germs help build immune systems – saving antibiotics for dire situations gives us a fighting chance when nature rolls out the big guns.

The Spanish Flu epidemic began in 1918 and is credited with 50 – 100 million funerals depending on whose report you read. Unlike Bubonic plague, flu is a virus, meaning antibiotics are useless. Thanks to the AIDS epidemic medicine has come a long way in developing anti-viral drugs;  anti- bacterial remedies for the most part can handle assignments, anti-viral drugs work to suppress or minimize symptoms – a huge difference.

The microscopic world constantly mutates and evolves – viruses are nasty business, nastier even than “plague squirrel” that set this ponder in motion. The “holy crap” moment I experienced when hearing the story served as a reminder – I would rather face zombies, a scenario with a fighting chance than be at the mercy of unseen organisms.

Spreading Dengue


When I think of Dengue Fever the last thing to cross my mind would be outbreaks in Europe or North America. Dengue is a tropical problem; found in Africa and jungles of the southern hemisphere – or so I thought. I hadn`t given Dengue much thought; aside from my perception it was a `jungle fever`, something that lurked in the night with malaria, the only other thing I knew was it is also called yellow fever, and caused a lot of trouble for Americans building the Panama Canal. Admittedly, a rather vague understanding.

Aedes aegypti, albopictus, and japonicus are the mosquitoes responsible for spreading this nasty `flu-like` virus. Dengue can`t be transmitted from person to person through contact, only the bite of a female mosquito carrying the virus can spread the unwelcome news. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 50 – 100 million cases annually, with almost half the world population now at risk. Before 1970 only 9 countries had Dengue epidemics, today over 100 countries are plagued by Dengue.

http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs117/en/

In the late 90`s carriers were found in Long Island, New York and Ocean County, New Jersey. Today these mosquitoes have shown up from Washington state to Florida, in Canadian provinces, Germany, France, and New Zealand. In North America fewer than 10% of cases are properly diagnosed – it`s unlikely your doctor would suspect Dengue unless you had recently travelled to a tropical location.

Dengue is not epidemic in North America or Europe; it is knocking at the door, and spreading at an incredible rate. There are those who blame it on climate change, and those who credit increased imports of products like `lucky bamboo` harbouring mosquito larvae. Either way these pests are extremely adaptable and by all appearances quite happy to join West Nile Virus as something we need to ponder.

Photo – cbc.ca