In a college biology course, professor Dr. Ralph Gunderson told us students that someday an epidemic could wipe out many millions of people. I remember raising my hand to question his statement, foolishly saying with all the vaccines we have now, such an epidemic would be quickly stopped.
Gunderson raised his bushy red eyebrows and said, “But Dennis, there are no known vaccines for some communicable diseases, and it can take a long time to develop and manufacture a vaccine.”
His words have haunted me ever since, especially in recent days with this ebola outbreak. The first known example of ebola infection contracted in the United States happened last week at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas.
A female nurse apparently caught the disease from a patient she was helping treat – Thomas Eric Duncan, a man from Liberia who died of the dreaded disease Oct. 8, the first person to die of ebola in America. The nurse is now undergoing treatment in the same hospital.
This case raises dreaded questions: Is ebola easier to catch than we’ve been told? Are these hospital isolation units really so safe and foolproof? How many more people in the United States have ebola? Or will soon have it? Let us hope the epidemiologists quickly provide answers to those troubling questions.
Epidemics, with good reason, are always frightening. During the Middle Ages, waves of bubonic plague, caused by fleas from rats, wiped out as many as a third of the population in major cities. Those plagues were horrifying because people then did not know what caused them or how to prevent them. Many assumed they were caused by God’s wrath, a means of punishing people for their sinful behavior.
During plagues, fears – genuine and irrational – spread as fast as the bacteria or viruses themselves. What results is a contagion of fear that can lead to witch hunts, desperate means to find scapegoats who caused the misery.
Such irrational fears and behaviors are by no means confined to the Dark Ages of ignorance and superstition. As recently as the 1980s, when AIDS infections began to multiply, the disease was dismissed at first as a gay disease. Then, some began to believe it was God’s way of punishing or killing gays for sinful behavior. Others spouted the idea it was started by gays to infect heterosexuals. Still others claimed the disease was invented in a lab somewhere and then unleashed among gays as a way of wiping out the gay population. The sheer variety of misinformation and fearful conspiracy theories abounded.
It’s not surprising. When people are forced to live with the unknown, fears proliferate and can erode the innate decency and healthy social bonds within a society. Two masterful books that explore that theme are The Plague (published in 1947) by French author Albert Camus and A Journal of the Plague Year (published in 1722) by Daniel Defoe. In the latter novel, which reads like a non-fiction account complete with lists of statistics, Defoe gives morbidly fascinating accounts of how the plague brings into being quack doctors, phony fortunetellers, sellers of hokey remedies and astrologers who claim to have all the answers. The scenes of suffering and terror in that realistic novel are among the most harrowing pages in all of literature.
Closer to our own time, there was the horror of the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed nearly 100 million people worldwide, including about 675,000 in the United States. It started, by some accounts, in a World War I staging troop area near Etaples, France. A precursor virus started in birds, then spread to the pigs that were kept near the war front. So goes that theory. Other theories claim it started in China, then mutated in Boston, then spread to France with troop ships. Still others insist the flu started in Haskell County, Kansas before spreading worldwide. The vicious virus caused an attack on one’s immune system, causing death by pneumonia or other opportunistic infections, as well as by massive bleeding. As in other epidemics, fears, superstitions and quackery ran rampant worldwide when that flu bug caused so much suffering and death.
To this day, there are more questions than answers about the Spanish influenza epidemic, which ravaged the world in two waves the year World War I ended.
The best way to deal with this ebola scare is for all of us to remain cool, calm and rational. The worst thing we can do is to panic, play blame games or indulge in fear-mongering, rumors and misinformation. Sadly, that has begun to happen. The contagion of baseless fears can be, in its way, as bad – or worse – than the virus that causes an epidemic.