Thursday, October 28, 2010

Plague; A Story of Science, Rivalry, and the Scourge That Won't Go Away, by Edward Marriott

The title is soooo appropriate for Halloween. This is nonfiction told with fiction flow of story. Marriott interweaves the history of how the bubonic plague baccillus was discovered, and the effect of a plague epidemic in various times and countries including our own.

"Huh?" you ask. Yes. Plague. The Black Death that wiped out a good portion of the population of Europe in the Middle Ages has at times reared it's ugly head in the United States. I wasn't aware it had ever been here either before I read this book. Yup. One more thing to worry about along with West Nile Virus, Hantavirus, H1N1, Ebola and every other pestilential nightmare.

Calm down now, while I give you a short synopsis and then you can get back to panicking.

In the 1890's, Hong Kong was still under the rule of the British Empire. That year the plague emerged and wiped out a good portion of a neighborhood where the living conditions were grim at best. While the disease took hold of the native population, somehow most of the British colonials managed to escape it. Most. Those colonials who were affected had the most contact with those who became sick.

Bacteriology was still a new discipline. The Pasteur Institute in Paris was the eminent organization in Europe studying various diseases and how they originated and how they spread. But instead of calling for someone from Europe to study what was going on, Lowson, a colonial official in charge of British hospitals in Hong Kong, turned to a bacteriologist from Japan named Kitasato.

Kitasato was a highly respected researcher in Asia. He had an impressive team and he was welcomed by Lowson with open arms. With access to good rooms in local hospitals, and cadavers with minutes of death, albeit under secrecy as the Chinese people distrusted the colonial authorities with the remains of their dead, Kitasato was in a prime position to discover what was causing the epidemic.

In Vietnam, another bacteriologist, called just by his surname, Yersin, wanted desperately to go study the outbreak in China, but because he wasn't considered a "team player" by the local colonial authorities (French), he had a hard time convincing anyone to let him go. It took all kinds of political petitioning and dredging up of amiable contacts to get the go ahead. When he finally arrived in Hong Kong, he not only got little help from Lowson, he was purposely obstructed by the Japanese team from securing any samples that could aid him in research. He eventually resorted to building his own hut, at his own expense, and bribing guards to get access to cadavers to study.

Marriott shows us how these two scientists, Kitasato and Yersin, raced against each other to find the originating bacillus. Kitasato seemed always to be a step ahead of Yersin, but Yersin was doggedly persistent and thorough in his research. Kitasato was credited with the discovery, but years later it turned out he was wrong. Yersin actually found the correct bacillus, which now bears his name.

You would think scientists would be fairminded and worried more about how people were suffering and how to stop it. This story seemed more daytime drama when considering the flagrant manner that Lowson fawned on Kitasato and despised Yersin. It seemed that the Japanese team were only concerned with the fame accompanying the discovery of the plague bacillus first rather than taking the time to do the proper research. I suppose scientists are human after all, prone to temptation just like anyone else.

Did you know there was a plague outbreak in Bombay, India in 1994? Do you remember that? Me neither. Didn't register at all. The panic got bad enough that hundreds fled the city - doctors first. The authorities tried to deny that it was plague while countries surrounding India were canceling flights in. People fleeing the city were beaten when trying to get off trains when they reached the countryside. Then, as seemingly quick as it started, it stopped. Plague is one of those weird diseases that comes forward and retreats in such a manner that you never know when it will hit and you never know how bad it will be.

I remember hearing in World History classes in college that the Black Death spread with rats in ships. Well, partially. Rats often carry the disease but have the antibodies to deal with it. Rats also carry fleas. When a rat dies, its body cools, and the fleas go looking for a new host, often carrying the blood of the rat in their bodies. If a human gets bit by one of these fleas, there's a chance that plague has been transmitted, and unless immediate antibiotics are administered quickly, death can occur in a few days.

So control of plague is best done by controlling rats. There's the hard part. Rats are very adaptable to human cities. They eat just about anything and with our dumpsters overflowing, there is plenty to eat. In a "normal" environment, there would not be quite so much food to sustain a large population, and the rats would turn to cannibalism, thus controlling their own numbers. One female can give birth to a new litter of eight to eleven every couple of months. Combine that with closed off areas in large cities where humans never go, and you can see that rats aren't going away anytime soon.

If you'd like to know more, I'll let you Google the topic, or you can read the book, or you can just chalk it up to one more Halloween nightmare.

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