Thriller Science: Man-made epidemics

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. 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:

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2 Responses to Thriller Science: Man-made epidemics

  1. Amy says:

    In the words of George W. Bush, “Bring ’em on!”

    Just kidding. I know emerging infections are not a laughing matter.

    My sarcasm on the issue of trying to predict new zoonoses before they break out reflects my appreciation for the overwhelming complexity of large biological systems. While it’s sometimes possible to look backward after an outbreak and explain the most likely path the microbe took from animals to humans, I think it’s going to be much harder to extrapolate observations of current ecosystems to anticipate a specific virus that will break out in the future.

    Not impossible. But very hard. Because many pathogens have opportunity but few will actually make the jump. Public health people don’t have the resources to monitor every threat. They can prioritize and monitor those they consider the biggest risks. But in my opinion, it’s a bit of a crap shoot. For example, who expected the last big influenza scare to come out of Mexico instead of Asia?

    Having said that, if I ruled the world, I would devote resources less toward prediction and more toward preparedness. Though the two are not mutually exclusive, of course: prediction is useful in designing early detection systems, even if we can’t truly predict the next pandemic. Early detection is a key component of better preparedness.

    So while I am skeptical about our ability to “predict” new zoonoses, I wholeheartedly endorse preparations to deal with the next outbreak/pandemic because it will happen whether we predict it or not.

  2. Helena says:

    In response to your sarcastic, “Good luck with that,” do you have any better suggestions? Or should we just wait like sitting ducks for the next deadly pandemic to emerge?

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