Beyond The Germ Theory
A. When Captain Cook arrived in the Hawaiian Islands in the late 1770s, he was received as Lono, the local god of peace and agricultural blessings. The natives welcomed him with gifts of various meats and tropical fruits. In return Cook and his crew gave the Hawaiians mirrors and cloth. They also opened the door to syphilis, gonorrhea, tuberculosis and influenza.
For the native population, who had no innate immunity to these novel germs, this contact proved apocalyptic. The epidemics that followed Cook’s visits and those of others reduced the indigenous population from more than half a million to less than 90,000 by the 1850s.
B. There is no doubt that infectious disease has been a great mystery for most of history. Although the Hebrew Scriptures give directions for quarantine and sanitation, it is only relatively recently that basic techniques of hygiene were scientifically identified and promoted. It was in the late 1800s, for example, that our earliest and most common instruction—“Wash your hands!”—came to make scientific sense.
Before Joseph Lister, Louis Pasteur, and Robert Koch developed the germ theory of infection, much disease was believed to be spontaneous. To wash hands, surfaces or surgical tools seemed until that time superfluous. The spread of disease was common, in some ways a foregone conclusion; when everyone in a hospital died, the solution was to raze it and build again once the miasma or bad vapors had cleared. From those times, it was a long and miserable road to Listerine antiseptics, pasteurization, and Koch’s identification of germs with specific diseases. Prior to this, all was a mystery.
C. It’s easy, then, to understand that for both individuals and populations, the sporadic nature of disease and epidemics was a confusing challenge. Why do some get sick and not others? Where does plague come from? What have we done to deserve this? Reason, religion and imagination were tasked to find answers. Many even asked, Is it something “in the stars” that drives plagues?God’s Plagues
Because imagery from Genesis to Revelation often refers to heavenly bodies as markers or signs, it was tempting for some to misinterpret them as heralds of terrestrial disturbances. Astrologers sought out repeating patterns, and, conflating them with odd events such as eclipses and comets, jiggered together a message foretelling a tenuous future. In the end, however, most agreed that God was the First Cause and concluded that whatever came was divine judgment.The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
D. Late in the first century, the apostle John saw a vision of four horsemen, each riding a different-colored horse. The meaning of that vision has been debated ever since, but it can be understood—and two thousand years later, it’s more relevant than ever. Although we now understand the biological causes of infectious disease in great detail, many even today perceive the pandemic potential of microbes as God’s latent wrath awaiting sinful man. What does the continuing cycle of plague really tell us about the human condition? From Theology to Ecology
Just as in the heyday of such fervor, it remains easy to get caught up in believing that modern plagues are a sign of the end, a kind of canary in the coal mine of human morality. After all, it was not long ago that HIV/AIDS was used as a proxy for sin, a marker of moral decay.
E. Yet a pestilence is not a spirit; nor is it a vapor, a miasma or a mysterious force. It is a biological entity—a bacterium, a spore, a virus. And like anything biological, it has a rationale and specific strategies through which it interacts with other living things, such as infecting a human being. As Jared Diamond explains in Guns, Germs, and Steel, a disease needs new people to infect. But once that strategy has been found out, who is responsible for the spread of disease—the microbe or the man?
F. In this struggle between microbe and human host, there has certainly been great and tragic loss. “The so-called Black Death erupted in Europe in 1347and within a decade wiped out a quarter to a third of the population. Once introduced, it could even spread without rats, as infected fleas hopped from person to person, and people with plague pneumonia coughed on others.”
G. The real culprit was not the bacterium, however, but the size, squalor and crowding of the human population; that was the trigger point for the pandemic. Infectious disease is not God’s wrath; AIDS, for example, is a basic biological consequence of contact with or consumption of primates as bush meat, viral mutation, and the stubborn continuance of harmful actions. Human behavior is the culprit, the real first cause of this modern plague. The same can be said of most of the potentially infectious diseases we fear.
H. Cholera is another well-studied disease. Caused by a bacterium, the infection brings on vomiting and diarrhea leading to death by dehydration. That this plague is associated with contaminated water was well-known when the Manhattan Company supplied New York City with water drawn from a sewage runoff site in the infamous Five-Points slum. The resulting epidemics that began in 1832 were completely predictable, the real cause having been economic: it was more profitable to take water from the sump than to pipe it from the river.