The microbe that will cause the next pandemic is among us and we don’t know its name.
It’s hard to remember when we all started using hand sanitizer and those dispensers of foamy Purell became ubiquitous in public spaces. The conspiracy-minded cannot help but wonder if that squishing sound as hands rub together is more placebo effect than preventive measure. Still, we indulge out of fear of the unseen, hoping that small acts will make the door handle or the strap on the subway safer to the touch. Perhaps you notice a lady on the bus or train wearing a surgical mask and you think that’s a bit much. Then someone coughs and you find yourself wondering if surgical masks come in any colors besides white.
In recent memory, we’ve experienced national freak-outs over Ebola, swine and bird flus, SARS, and the Zika virus. Aid workers and medical professionals have been quarantined at airports for their service, a powerful disincentive for anyone willing to go on the ground and help prevent an outbreak. Politicians stoked fear and insisted that visitors to infected regions be banned from our borders. Pigs and fowl were routinely slaughtered to quell the spread of infection. The appearance of action in the face of crisis was indulged, but to fairly meaningless ends.
“Outbursts of fear are indeed futile,” writes Sonia Shah, author of Pandemic, a case study of the contagions that have made us, not because fear is an improper response to a pathogenic outbreak, but because that fear is derived from ignorance. Fear is a response to the unexpected, a result from the First World belief that we have mastered pathogens. Shah seeks to illuminate such hubris through a historical lens, using past pandemics like Cholera and malaria as predictors for a future microbe that makes the jump to pathogen and then pandemic.
Humans are complex creatures. Exploration and colonization are part of our complexity. Microbes that are otherwise benign in their own ecosystems become contagious and lethal when introduced to humans. Such was the case with cholera, an animal bacterium that lived in symbiosis with copepods in the wetlands of Bengal. In the 1760s, The East India Company took Bengal and razed its wetlands to make farms and settlements. Concentrated exposure to humans caused the bacteria to mutate against the human body’s defenses. A deadly epidemic followed.
Industrialization, urbanization, globalization and ease of travel between countries were all factors in the spread of the Cholera pandemic across the world. Shah uses this so-called “Cholera Paradigm” to explain the spread of the newer pathogens that plague us today. HIV, Zika, et al, are known as Cholera’s children, following the same path from animal bacteria to pandemic through similar man-made routes. According to this paradigm, our current methods of response are too slow to limit an outbreak; we respond linearly, trying to contain outbreaks as they appear. Bacteria fail to follow such logic and spread asymmetrically. Agencies charged with containing outbreaks like the World Health Organization have yet to develop a sufficient surveillance system to monitor potential outbreaks in areas that would seem at risk.
Shah describes a fascinating competition between old pathogens and the new in the United States. The exoticism of diseases like Zika and Ebola give them a Hollywood blockbuster kind of villainy. They are from foreign places and terrify Americans with a specter of the unknown. Yet old pathogens like measles, fatal only decades ago, have this sense of being optional in the purview of the anti-vaccine movement. The “illusion of mastery,” Shah writes, has allowed some pathogens to exist because they no longer inspire the fear they should. We think we are safe from rabies and Lyme disease when statistically that isn’t true. But if the treatment isn’t too horrible or the resulting debilitation too immediate, human beings seem willing to host dangerous things.
Pandemic fits in well with the ever-expanding library of books and films that could be categorized as “Horrors We Brought on Ourselves.” It’s best read at home, away from the coughs and sniffles of others. The term “vaccine resistant pathogen” will make you itch and add to your nightmares of drone strikes and climate catastrophes. Shah’s thesis offers one comfort: the human race has faced pandemics many times and survived. The ever-present discomfort is that the microbe that will cause the next pandemic is among us and we don’t know its name. Wash your hands. It will ease your mind.