Is it a sign of sociopathy to have a fondness for killer germs?
I hope not, because I suffer from a morbid fascination with agents of deadly infections. My interest is not equal-opportunity; some pathogens are more interesting than others. While pneumococcal meningitis can leave you just as dead as Ebola virus, Ebola has a certain flair, a macabre style.
Reasons killer germs make my list of favorites:
- Gruesome or unusual symptoms. Rashes are boring. Bleeding from your eyeballs is not.
- Rarity. A disease that pops up once a decade is more interesting than a once-a-day killer.
Molecular oddity. Quirks in the DNA, RNA, structure, or function of the germ. Which is cooler: the alien-looking syringelike T4 phage virus shown here, or a ball-shaped microbe?
- Historical importance. Bubonic plague ravaged an entire continent. Smallpox became the first microbe intentionally exterminated by humans. This makes them intriguing.
- New. We all crave novelty. Emerging infections make the news, mobilize the CDC, and generally get geeks like me all excited.
The hantavirus family stands out in at least 3 of these categories. It’s relatively new, it’s rare, and it has a fascinating history: in 1993, a mysterious new disease was killing young Navajos in the remote “Four Corners” region of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. An epidemiological strike force solved the puzzle in record time and characterized the first of several North American hantaviruses (read more here).
Combine hantavirus with one of my favorite places on earth in a newspaper headline, and you’ve got my full attention.
“Hantavirus outbreak at Yosemite considered unprecedented” is the title of today’s Los Angeles Times article (the story has appeared in many news outlets). Three people who stayed in one of Yosemite National Park’s Curry Village tent cabins have come down with hantavirus infection; two have died. This kind of disease cluster is alarming and as the article purports, unprecedented for a national park.
I’m not interested in fear-mongering or spreading panic. Yosemite gets around 4,000,000 visitors per year; 3 of them got sick. I’d visit the park tomorrow if my schedule allowed. What I find compelling about this story is the way it highlights our society’s ignorance about the natural world. Living in cities creates a false sense of security, a subconscious belief that we are shielded from nature’s tooth and claw. It’s true I’m not likely to be attacked by a mountain lion. But various infectious diseases carried by animals abound in wild places like parks. These “zoonoses” can cross into humans. This isn’t because park officials are inept. It’s because parks are the “real” world.
Hantavirus is one of these zoonoses. The virus is excreted by certain animals, especially rodents, in their urine. You can catch it by breathing air in a contaminated space (such as a tent cabin). Hantavirus is not the only rare and deadly pathogen lurking in parklands. Bubonic plague germs have a constant low-level presence in the fleas of wild rodent populations in the Sierra Nevada and in recent years have led to periodic closures of campgrounds at state parks and also Kings Canyon National Park.
All of this could make good material for a science thriller novel!
Update 9/1/2012: The number of cases is growing, now at 6. More info here at NBCnews.