Thriller Science: Hantavirus outbreak at Yosemite National Park

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.
  • T4 bacteriophage virus (Wikipedia commons)

    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.

Do you enjoy plague stories with real science? Read PETROPLAGUE by Amy Rogers.
Oil-eating bacteria contaminate the fuel supply of Los Angeles and paralyze the city.
“Compellingly written, technically literate”
“top 5 on my best of 2011 list”
“the science is utterly believable”
“I couldn’t put this one down”

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6 Responses to Thriller Science: Hantavirus outbreak at Yosemite National Park

  1. The hantavirus really hit the big time in the US in 1993 in northern New Mexico/Texas area. I actually know someone who’s little brother was one of the first to succumb to the disease during that outbreak. C.J. Peters describes the CDC investigation in his book “Virus Hunter.” Like you, I’m fascinated by such outbreaks, but from a public health aspect.

  2. Morgan says:

    “Rashes are boring. Bleeding from your eyeballs is not.” Can I quote you on that? It’s actually a rock solid principle for writers of any kind of thriller.

    I’ve been visiting Yosemite on a regular basis since I was 12, and don’t plan to stop because of this.

    • Amy says:

      Right you are, my own unwitting writers’ aphorism.

      It actually would be kind of nice if hantavirus phobia kept a few people away from Yosemite Valley. Especially in June and July!

  3. Amy says:

    Thanks for the comment, James. Bioterrorism is indeed prime material for science thriller fiction; many authors whose books are reviewed on this website have used it but the plot permutations are endless, so many more books are sure to come.

  4. James Murray says:

    I agree wholeheartedly that some of our most interesting health challenges can come from the “real” world. Most people don’t realize how fragile our natural “barriers” are to deadly germs. The headlines on such things as flesh-eating bacteria from an accidental dip in the wrong lake or pond could spell real trouble for us. I wrote a blog recently on Bioterrorism as a possible next real threat to our peaceful existence. My novels (as yet unpublished) are all about Murder, Mayhem and Medicine. As I researched the subject of Bioterrorism, I realized that I had found the initial makings of a believable plot for a future novel.

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