I am fascinated by Infectious Disease

When I grow up I want to become an epidemiologist. Don’t get me wrong I love teaching. I find change from year to year challenging and exciting, but there is something about disease that tickles my fancy.  Now I know this is not the most common of interests, and at first glance it appears to be a rather morbid fascination or for that matter second or third glances, but I find the historical impact fascinating.

It all started for me when I was at college and there was a small cemetery on campus with about a hundred or so graves all with the years of death from 1918-1920. At first I thought oh, World War I, but wait that ended in 1918.  This little cemetery was a mystery and interested me so much that I started researching the events that could have caused such a large number of deaths in a small community.  If you know anything about 1918 you will know two things happened, November 11th World War I ended and in January the H1N1 influenza pandemic began which eventually killed three to five percent of the World’s population.  In total deaths from World War I equal 16 million, deaths from the 1918 flu? 50 to 100 million –   Flu wins.

But wait

The flu does not top the charts for actual destruction of civilization.  That award goes to the Black Death.  The Black Death, most likely caused by Yersinia pestis, travelled along the Silk Road beginning in 1338 C.E. and swept its way through Asia.  It was then carried to Europe possibly by the Mongol Hordes who graciously introduced it to Europe when they attacked the city of Caffa in the Crimean in 1347 by firing infected corpses over the city walls.  On a side note I find the impact of the Mongol hordes on culture and the technology of Europe to be of an equal fascination with the havoc caused by disease, probably because they are equally cold and efficient.  The Black Death killed between 45-50% of the European population, and in the hubs of trade of France, Spain and Italy the percent of the population killed was probably closer to 75%.  This was an unfathomable destruction of European and Asian civilized society.

The impact of disease on the ability of Europeans to conquer and control the Americas was highlighted in Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel.  An extremely dense book, but a good read.  If you don’t have the time to devote to the book you can get a nice feel from the documentary by National Geographic, which is currently on Netflix.  Here is a quick summary: Small Pox, Europe’s Ace in the hole for conquering the Americas and damn you Malaria why won’t you let me control Africa.

Currently there is the Enterovirus EV-D68 that is hitting the Midwest United States with gusto.  It started in August, but with the opening of schools in September you can imagine the places it will go.  There is no vaccine, but luckily it is not often fatal.  Supportive care may be needed, especially those with breathing difficulties.

So as school begins remember to wash your hands, stock the tissues invest in Lysol/bleach and get the flu shot.  Getting the flu on top of EV-D68 will not be pretty.

All glibness aside, infectious diseases are so devastating there are no words.  Pertussis, pneumonia, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella, typhus, typhoid, tuberculosis, rabies, polio, cholera and so many more have been contained by modern medicine, plumbing and sanitation.  We, who are so distant from these diseases, make jokes and do not take them seriously

They are very serious.

The Haitian cholera outbreak from 2010-2013 killed over 8,000 people, 6% of the population.  Not to put too fine a point on it, unless treated, you shit and vomit yourself to death ultimately dying of dehydration and electrolyte imbalance.

Currently ebola is decimating West Africa and is the largest ebola outbreak in history.  People have died because they wanted to touch their dead loved ones before they buried them.  There is no cure, no vaccine (though one is in trials in the U.S.) and it has a fatality rate of 90%.  This is too close, too horrible and too deadly for me.

This is my spiral of interest.  In historical context I am fascinated and eager, but as my study of infectious disease and their impact approaches the present my horror outweighs any academic interest.  I have to distance myself from the reality, double check my vaccination schedule, get my flu shot, run in horror from any bats I see and shake my head in amazed horror that anyone could ever believe that dangers of vaccines could ever, EVER, outweigh what they have given to our society.

Featured image Still Panicking about swine flu (sic) by Yasser Alghofily

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Jennifer teaches science in a public school in Pennsylvania. She lives there with her husband and two dogs.

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