Every contemporary civilization looks at the medical practices of ages past and marvels at how far they’ve come since those dark days. 15th-century Venetian plague doctors mocked the medieval idea of illness as possession by the Devil as they slipped on the bird masks that would repel the “evil smell” of The Plague. Victorians, in turn, laughed at the use of those bitchin’ bird masks to protect from the Black Death even as they prepared to amputate limbs with surgical instruments that couldn’t slice a tomato. No matter what era you may be living in, your medical forbears all seem somehow both quaint and terrifying in comparison to the shiny medical advances of your time.
Of course, now we’re living in an era of face transplants, flu vaccines, and bionic lungs, and can develop a cure for bird flu practically in real time; so…we’re in the clear, right?
We may seem like we know what we’re up to, but in reality, whenever you do something as seemingly innocent as buy grocery-store chicken cutlets or knock back another round of antibiotics left over from the last time you had strep, you’re actually contributing to the rise of superbugs and other pandemics that will devastate future populations and make our current world health practices look like one long biological suicide attempt. (Oops.)
With that in mind, below please find five pandemics your descendants will probably have to live with—if they live, that is.
(Chances are not good.)
It’s a sweet irony of our time that our celebrities, contractually mandated to look twenty-seven forever or be mocked on the cover of US Weekly, are being kept beautiful by discreet, carefully-placed injections of Botox, a highly neurotoxic (and really grody) disease. And when those injections go horribly wrong (and they will), we’ll at least have the comfort of knowing that we brought it on ourselves.
Though the botulism toxin is currently considered a relatively rare disease, the botulism bacterium (Clostridium botulinum) has all the positioning to become a serious threat. It has multiple transfer mediums: it’s found in soil, improperly raised livestock and fermented raw foods, it can easily colonize open wounds, and it tends to attack infants. And while different variations currently affect livestock and humans, a rise in global antibiotic resistance means that it has potential to go cross-species—and that’s when we really get in trouble.
Even the inert spores are dangerous; while the botulism toxin can be cooked out of food, the spore itself survives long past the toxin’s kill-point, and can produce the toxin just as effectively later. And once the toxin has taken effect, it’s difficult to treat.
Now, oddly, even this is not a long enough list of dangers to keep people from injecting it right into their faces, which will make a bad situation worse when the pandemic does come; we’ll be all out of actors who could make breezy romantic comedies to take our minds off it.
2. The Plague
What, that old thing?
The Black Plague, which ravaged Europe and Central Asia in the Middle Ages (peaking between 1347 and 1351), is generally considered to have been an outbreak of bubonic plague (Yersinia pestis). And though we tend to think of it as a past evil, chances are we probably haven’t seen the last of it.
Now, bubonic plague, on the surface, is less scary than many other superbugs that loom on the horizon. It can be effectively treated with existing antibiotics, for one thing. And the most conventional way it spreads is so disgustingly specific as to seem out of the realm of possibility for many. (The main cause of initial contagion in the Middle Ages was flea barf: infected fleas exhibit starvation behavior by biting humans, being unable to swallow the blood, and vomiting the blood—and the disease—back into the open wound. Bon appétit!)
However, there was a perfect storm of factors making the severity and spread of the disease possible then. A widespread crop shortage meant malnourished populations were more susceptible to illness; the rise of insects in increasingly-crowded areas provided ready carriers; and the ability of Yersinia pestis to manifest as pneumonic (lung-based) plague meant that it could be spread quite easily among people. The elimination of any one of these factors would mitigate the impact of any outbreak. Of course, do you really want to bet the farm (much less your life) on that?
It may seem like a far-away worry, but cases are already appearing again worldwide, and given recent global trends of overcrowding, food shortages, and insect infestations, the next perfect storm could already be brewing. The best way to keep yourself safe in this worst-case scenario is 1) avoid cities, 2) grow your own food and 3) start stockpiling the Frontline.
Cause, let’s face it, the nastiest part of this little bacterial blight has got to be the flea barf.
Remember how we talked about you tossing back antibiotics at the first hint of illness? Well, thanks to you and a billion other knuckleheads, the antibiotic-resistant staph infection MRSA is what we’ve got.
MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is just one of a stable of antibiotic-resistant diseases that has risen in genetic response to our culture’s often-irresponsible and unnecessary use of antibiotics, as those bacteria who survive these rounds of antibiotics breed and become increasingly harder to kill. However, MRSA is the most prevalent of the super-strains, transfers easily via respiration (and even occasionally with skin contact), and if not treated within the first forty-eight hours can easily become necrotic, flesh-eating pneumonia. (So think about that the next time you watch a zombie horde on late-night TV.)
The good news here, however, is that MRSA has unlikely enemies: lemongrass oil and tee tree oil are surprisingly effective at inhibiting the growth of MRSA cultures. The bad news is, with the current global rate of deforestation, we’ll run out of both of those pretty soon.
Our best suggestion: when this pandemic really hits, make sure you’re the first in line at The Body Shop.
4. Pseudomonas aeruginosa
This mouthful is probably the scariest bacteria on our list, not only because of what it does, but because of where it lives.
Molecular multitasker that it is, a pseudomonas aeruginosa infection can hit almost anywhere in the body, usually choosing major organs like the lungs and liver. And even if it doesn’t concentrate, it can get into the bloodstream and cause sepsis (blood poisoning), which is often fatal.
Though treatable, the regimen must be administered with intravenous antibiotics that are determined on a case-by-case basis depending on the type and severity of infection, meaning that those without access to sufficient medical care are in a pretty nasty situation.
And if that wasn’t enough, Pseudomonas aeruginosa can survive inside almost any living thing…and on anything else. An avid species-jumper, this superbacterium is also capable of surviving indefinitely on inorganic objects and is often found, for example, on sterilized hospital instruments.
Interestingly, this seems to be a case of every era getting the pathogen it deserves; one of the hidden talents of Pseudomonas aeruginosa is its ability to absorb oil from oil spills. Good news for the next oil spill, and bad news for anyone who just signed up for any BP-sponsored medical studies.
5. The Flu
Oh, come on, you knew this was going to happen. Next to the common cold, Influenza is so widespread a virus that it’s impossible to guard against all strains. Plus, being viral, it can reappear in the same patient repeatedly.
Influenza can also species-hop and create new, stronger strains, such as in the recent pandemics of the more-severe-than-usual swine flu and bird flu. Bonus: it evolves so fast that the CDC has to develop a new flu shot every year, because the old one just doesn’t cut it anymore. (Apparently they’re trying to solve this catch-up issue with genome mapping, which sounds suitably sterile but a little slow for those of us holding our breaths on the ground.)
And of course, on top of everything else, influenza usually transmits via breathing, the hardest transmission to protect against.
All of which kind of makes you think that when Agent Smith sat down with Morpheus to talk about humanity as a virus, we should all have been taking better notes.
Bottom line? Take the blue pill.
Even though the recent emergence of swine flu, bird flu and SARS really scared the bejesus out of us, it’s entirely possible that the superbugs of our future have yet to appear; that they’re still hovering in the cells of their first critical carrier, mutating quietly while they wait for the right time to strike. However, given our spotty history at erasing even past pandemics, and the difficulty of treating initial cases as they re-emerge worldwide, (such as the recent cholera epidemic in Haiti), the only way we’re going to avoid some serious trouble is to start looking at health as a worldwide issue, and treat all cases with the seriousness they deserve.
And for the love of Pete, lose the Cipro already.
Spread the word!