Purposefully Endemic

The killer arrived at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) on Japan Airlines flight 761 from Tokyo. Working at an easy pace, twenty-three hundred people were killed in the airport before the killer arrived at the taxi stand in front of the international arrivals terminal. Oddly enough, the doomed victims didn’t even know they’d been killed. It would take nine hours before they perished. But even as they died, they in turn killed thousands more as they bundled themselves into aircraft, shuttles, buses, subways and trains. Death spread like ever widening ripples throughout society here and abroad. The killer was a virus and in a global economy with people traveling to each and all of the continents, within two days hundreds of thousands of victims lay dead, but not before they passed the deadly virus on to others. Before the machinery of quarantine and medical response could be mounted, the die was cast. In just under a year eighty percent of the world’s population would die. The virus would, eventually, wear itself out, fading away as it mutated into different strains, strains not so virulent or deadly. With only twenty percent of the original population surviving, the world took a giant step backwards. Those who lived without benefit of technology survived in the greatest comfort, but of the majority that relied on technology for literally everything it was a different story. No means of production, no ability to maintain infrastructure, the population dwindled to a mere five percent of what used to be. Mankind returned to the caves.

While it sounds like science fiction, this is a threat we face. It is a fate more possible than any of the other doomsayer predictions currently in vogue. History bears it out, if you look. In 1918 an influenza raged in epidemic proportions through Spain killing eight million people. Thus dubbed the Spanish Flu, it broke out into other nations and in the end killing millions and infecting billions. There was never a cure developed for the outbreak, fortunately the virus mutated into a benign form. But it ravaged a world trying desperately to recover from a devastating world war,  a world that luck favored. Take that same scenario and apply it to today’s highly traveled populations and it becomes crystal clear just how vulnerable we are. Especially in America where we are almost totally a wholly consumer population, a pandemic could cripple the means of supply and causing starvation as the followup blow in a one-two punch. While the concept of biological warfare or terrorism is enough to keep population watchdogs up at night, it’s an outright horror that as with the Spanish Flu, nature is actually more likely to attack us than some rogue state or stateless enemy. We have managed to dodge the proverbial bullet; think in terms of Ebola, AIDS, Swine Flu, SARS, and H1N1 or Bird Flu. Pandemic isn’t a matter of fiction, it’s more a matter of timing. Fortunately, we’ve managed to keep contagious killers on a relatively small scale –in contrast to outbreaks like 1918.

Every year we have a flu season, and every year influenza kills. But it kills less, in relation to population numbers, because we meet it with flu vaccines which address the most virulent strains of annual flu. Sadly, we can’t address them all, there’s just too many.  But along with flu we’ve managed great strides in dealing with large scale viral and bacteriological threats, even managing and at times curing certain cancers. It behooves us to maintain the fight against disease, and not just on a research basis, but a personal one.

With this in mind, think about the CNN piece on September 13 by Elizabeth Cohen titled US Measles Cases Highest in 17 Years. You say: “Whoa, Bob. Where did that come from? What has measles got to do with a doomsday scenario?  The answer is that it’s allegorical. Measles spreads through the contagion process and that process is being assisted because certain parents are following either some religious conviction or worse yet, unsubstantiated rumors which have been proven false and are refusing to have their babies vaccinated. In 2000 the world believed that it had finally eradicated measles, a disease often lumped with other childhood maladies like chicken pox or mumps but it’s vastly worse. It’s a respiratory disease that often spawns pneumonia and encephalitis, replete with brain frying fevers. Measles is no joke and the idea that 150 cases have showed up this year when the number should have been zero is alarming. It’s also infuriating because it’s unnecessary. Parents who make the choice not to have their children inoculated against measles and other conditions aren’t making a personal choice. They’re making a life choice for another human being, and not necessarily their own children. Contagion is why.  I have no urge to judge people who make choices for themselves. I believe people should be free to deal with their own lives and deal with personal illness any way they choose so long as their choice doesn’t impact others.

The human body is a miraculous machine. It’s astounding how at once it can be so robust and yet, at the same time, fragile and vulnerable. But in physical size, it is the tiniest of threats, the viruses and bacteria that pose the greatest threat to us, and our lifestyle of mobility creates the perfect vector for assault. We cannot afford the luxury of choice when it comes to transmittable illness. When we are offered the opportunity to protect ourselves and others we need to take it. But most especially so when it comes to our children. It is in their hands we commend the future.