When Microbes Attack

Written by Alan Cabal on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

Recently I decided to switch
ISPs. I had an account under one of my numerous aliases with Earthlink, and
while it worked just fine out on the road, here in New York it usually took
seven or eight tries just to get my mail. One fine autumn morning I threw the
AOL CD into my little iBook and made the leap.

Now I have another dilemma
entirely to deal with. I don’t use the Internet to buy stuff. I use the
Internet for research and amusement. I enjoy things like Slashdot (www.slashdot.org),
"news for nerds, stuff that matters," and I visit sites like ArabicNews.com,
where I can get news about the Middle East that, for some reason or another,
just doesn’t get reported in the major media outlets here. I get updates
on spudgun design technology from www.goldmann.com/spudgun.html. Spudguns are
great, especially if you live in a noisy neighborhood. I’m interested in
nonlethal and unregulated weapons.

My current dilemma is centered
around a particularly alarming e-list called ProMED. I still haven’t resubscribed,
and I’m not sure I should. ProMED is a medical industry-type e-list intended
to keep medical professionals abreast of the latest outbreaks, epidemics and
plagues. Ever since I read The Hot Zone I’ve been acutely aware
of the need to stay on top of this sort of thing. One of the journalists I most
admire is Laurie Garrett, who covered the AIDS beat for Newsday several
years ago and authored the scariest book I’ve ever read, The Coming
, an examination of the emerging rainforest viruses and antibiotic-resistant
strains of bacteria. When I worked for the circus, I made it a point to know
who had guns on the lot, because tempers flare and things get crazy out on the
road, and it’s important to know when to go to the bar. If I were working
in a fireworks factory, I’d make sure I knew who the smokers were, and
I’d keep my eye on them. Living in New York City, I feel compelled to keep
track of any little microscopic boogers or cooties that might be inclined to
come calling. Ebola would burn through this town like a fire in a cardboard
factory, and advance warning would be enough to justify a weekend in Vermont,
at the very least.

This advance knowledge creeps
in on you. I stopped eating from salad bars years ago because of this thing.
I stay out of pools frequented by large numbers of children. I gave up on sushi
and steak tartare. Since the anthrax outbreaks in Minnesota, Nevada and Manitoba
this past summer, I’ve been very nervous about eating beef, and I stay
out of fast-food joints entirely. The malaria belt has widened, expanding north
as far as Sarasota, FL. There were a couple of cases right here recently that
didn’t involve travel. Malaria killed two million people last year. AIDS
is spit in the wind compared to malaria. All four forms of dengue fever have
been found in the Dominican Republic. Dengue is one of the most painful ordeals
a human body can endure. The Africans call it "breakbone," because
that’s what it feels like. It’s carried by tiger mosquitoes. There
weren’t any tiger mosquitoes in the United States until a batch of them
sailed over in a shipment of tires from Asia, another wonderful benefit of international

Over in Myanmar, our second
biggest supplier of heroin, about 5000 people fell ill or died this summer from
malaria, anthrax, typhoid, scrub typhus and leptospirosis. I’m thinking
we may get a mysterious junkie die-off sometime this winter. If I were into
heroin, which I am not, I’d definitely stick to smoking it.

I was getting daily updates
on this West Nile River virus phenomenon from ProMED. Short of killing every
mosquito in America, there isn’t a damn thing to be done about this. I
like fresh-squeezed juices, but the argument for pasteurization was driven home
by a few illnesses and the death related to Odwalla juice products out West
not too long ago.

Sometimes it seems like
we’re in the midst of a very quiet bio-war. Other times this ProMED stuff
just reinforces my belief that Nature is crazy and dangerous, best confronted
clad in some kind of variant on Darth Vader’s costume, hermetically sealed
and filtered, shielded from all the tiny Lovecraftian monsters teeming around
on the surface of this world. Maybe you’re reading this on the subway.
Someone sneezes, and doesn’t cover his mouth. A tubercular crackhead shuffles
by, hacking and wheezing, and touches you. You put your hand on a railing, and
a few seconds later, scratch your nose.

The worst places are New
York City hospitals. The hospitals in this city are swarming with mutant bacteria,
tougher than the X-Men, bred by improper use of antibiotics, overuse of antibacterial
cleansers and doctors who don’t have the good common sense to wash their
hands between patients or after using the bathroom. You could go in for a routine
physical, and emerge with a clean bill of health and a brand new friend: flesh-eating

So I’m very conflicted
about resubscribing to this list. On the one hand, I don’t trust the government
or the media to keep me informed. On the other hand, I’m not so sure I
really want to know about the neurological effects of exposure to pfiesteria
among fishermen in the Chesapeake Bay. There is an ongoing process of very rapid
serial bifurcations taking place in human society right now, and one of the
most urgent quandaries for those of us in the well-fed, well-connected West
has to do with coping with severe information overload. Prioritizing the information
available is difficult at best. Sorting out the information received is just
as tricky. The line between hypervigilance and paranoia is a fine line, indeed,
and shrinking every day.

(ProMED’s website
is located at www.promedmail.org. Visit the site for subscription information.)