Today I’m introducing a new blog series at ScienceThrillers. “Thriller Science” posts will feature fascinating news or information from the world of real science. Each post will address a science topic that either has appeared in a science-themed thriller–or is great source material for future science thrillers. Maybe I’ll write some of those future thrillers myself. But because there is no shortage of great thriller fiction ideas in real science–one reason I chose this subgenre for my writing–I’m not afraid to share the tidbits I come across.
“Man-Made Epidemics” is the alarming title of an article in Sunday’s New York Times (Review section, page 1, July 15, 2012), written by Jim Robbins. Print edition subtitle: Many of the infectious diseases that afflict us are a result of the things we do to nature.
ScienceThrillers.com summary: You’ve heard of AIDS, SARS, bird flu, and probably Ebola. What do all of these deadly virus diseases have in common?
- They’re all “emerging infections,” meaning they seemingly arose out of nowhere in recent times to kill people.
- They’re all zoonoses. That means the viruses that cause them came from animals.
This pattern is becoming the modern-world standard. Human activities are changing ecosystems. It’s not just charismatic megafauna (cute species like panda bears) that are affected. Building homes in wild areas, driving new roads into the rainforest, turning forest into farms, and so on alter the balance of nature in ways we cannot see. Our actions can change the types of viruses humans encounter, and can favor one type of virus over another.
Some great examples in the article:
- putting pig farms near orchards in the tropics, where fruit bats drop Nipah virus into the meat supply (anybody catch this at the end of the movie Contagion?)
- fragmentation of forest in the eastern U.S. decreases predators (hawks, foxes, etc.) and increases populations of white-footed mice which carry high levels of Lyme disease bacteria–ultimately leading to more human cases.
The author cites a global effort called Predict and the One Health Initiative as ways scientists and public health specialists are trying to grapple with emerging disease threats. In particular they want to predict where new diseases are most likely to emerge and to establish early detection systems.
In a sarcastic tone of voice I must say, “Good luck with that.”
The next bubonic plague (an old world zoonosis that emerged because of human activity and changed human history) will happen. Will we be ready for it?
Not for a long time, so let’s hope it doesn’t strike anytime soon. Laurie Garrett wrote an excellent book about global preparedness, and the situation is grim. Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health (published in 2001; presumably things have improved since then.)
On the lighter side, enjoy the following ScienceThrillers that play with zoonoses or emerging infections in fiction: