Monday, October 06, 2014

"THE VIRAL STORM": Reflections

In the Seventies after working as an animal control officer in the streets of Portland and then as the research and education coordinator, I was advised never to donate my blood, because I had probably acquired a soup of microbes and other infectious agents and the blood would be used by vulnerable people.  Not much research was available and no internet so one had to go cruise library stacks or make appointments with experts.  One of the other officers, the second woman hired, was Renee, who had interrupted her trajectory towards being a veterinarian because her husband had developed a rickettsia, an infection that severely compromised his health.  Until then, none of us knew there was such a thing. 

A tick's butt on the left, head on the right.

A rickettsia is a kind of bacteria, a class of microbes that includes Rocky Mountain Fever and other typhus sorts of afflictions.  Bugs carry them: fleas, lice, skeeters, etc.  “They are one of closest living relatives to bacteria that were the origin of the mitochondria organelle that exists inside most eukaryotic cells.”  By now many of us are aware that our cells have many little bubbles of inclusions with cell walls and DNA of their own.  Evolution at its most amazing and powerful took place when the planetary soup was just giving rise to one-celled “animals” -- animated and self-determining as they cruised where they could to find what would help them survive, taking in bits of everything else and throwing off what was no longer needed.  

This is the heart of “fitness”, that the endeavor matches the result.  Bits of DNA, technically viruses, never really formed into anything more than that.  Bits of DNA absconded from established cells and took up life on different terms, if you could call it life.  Some won’t.  They want their cell walls!  No cell wall, no life!  As if a virus cared.  To say nothing of virions, which are bits of virus floating around on their own.  The bits keep getting bittier.

When I first moved back to the East Slope about fifteen years ago, I thought I was evading the crowded cities and their diseases.  But one of the worst cases of flu I ever had came from helping to turn bales in a field that had been shared by free-ranging pigs and migrating waterfowl.  We’re on one of the major flight paths.  I read about it later.  Cases of contagious disease that go back and forth between species have always interested me, partly because my mother survived the Spanish Flu and partly because of myself not being affected by a national wave of flu in 1957, just as I started college.  We both derived a sense of imperviousness.  Quite unwarranted.  My immunity to measles, chicken pox and scarlet fever was acquired the old-fashioned way:  I had ‘em and survived.

But when I was an animal control officer and going in and out of houses full of sick people, muck, feces, rodents and bugs of all kinds, I didn’t worry about it very much, even though our shelter veterinarian (trained in public health) reminded us that Portland is a port city, which means the rats carry to shore every kind of scuttling life on the planet.   Even so, the rabies case that turned up was brought in by a wealthy man with his son and a “found” dog from the street in Mexico.  They evaded the border because the man piloted his own plane.  The animal control staff had rabies vaccinations.  No one knew whether they would really work.

In the Eighties when I was a circuit-riding minister, one of our most beloved parishioners in Bozeman, developed some kind of brain affliction.  No one understood it, though Bozeman is a college town on the cutting edge of this stuff.  Over the years it became clearer as a prion disease, called Alzheimer’s, but then I couldn’t find any literature on the Internet (by now I was googling like mad) about what a prion was.  Beef ranchers obsess about brucellosis, which is bacterial and causes bovine abortions.  If people catch it, it will lodge in their joints and plague them for life.  Maybe they should worry more about elk chronic wasting disease, which is a prion (misfolded protein -- now we know) contagion that isn’t even alive -- just infectious.  But now some think prions are produced by spiroplasma bacteria, strange wall-less cells.  Not quite virus.

I’m saying that the new paradigm of world-wide existence no longer has cell-walls itself.  In fact, truly addressing the ebola epidemic, which could easily get far more out of hand, means removing the walls of disciplines, the walls of nations, the walls of stigma that we have depended upon to keep boundaries and limits, our basic principle of existence.  Now we must go to DNA, and that means code: everything is code.  Our bodies, societies, lines of inquiry about the world, moralities, economies -- all code at the core.

Nathan Wolfe’s book, “The Viral Storm, the Dawn of a New Pandemic Age,” was published in 2011, before the current crisis.  Therefore it is calm but prescient and persuasive.  David Quammen is writing a new book about Ebola, building on his previous work in “Spillover,” which covers some of the same thought.  

Wolfe spends a lot of time thinking about hunting in Africa where it was bushmeat that let HIV and ebola (the most notorious examples) jump to humans.  In that part of the world, these things are personal so he was a participant, eating everything, catching malaria just like everyone.  He sees patterns.  He speaks of “background chatter” of code in the same sense as diplomatic capture and sifting of information in the hopes of predicting danger.  He compares the constant code webbing of viruses among themselves to the constant code webbing among kids on smart phones.  Hidden, often unsuspected, powerful in subtle ways. 

In 1990 Judy Comes at Night was teaching coding to her fifth grade classes in Heart Butte when the rest of us hardly knew what software was and there was no access to the internet.  (She died of cancer, a cellular code failure.) Once satellite service developed and the computers left the desktops to inhabit pockets, they became a poor person’s necessity and a young person’s access to the world.  Code swarms.  Poor tribal kids living on the fringe, “speaking World”.  So far the East Slope has not been investigated in the way that Wolfe’s jungle hunters have been indexing viruses in animal blood.  Most of us no longer hunt for meat the way we used to.  Maybe with luck it will turn out that the high level of ultraviolet light, temp extremes, and the dry grasslands will not host so many little invaders of humans.  I doubt it.  I think they will just be tougher.

The unique method of Wolfe’s hunters is to collect blood samples as they go, very simply on little cards of filter paper.  They needn’t be refrigerated and can be turned in for a small reward.  What has been revealed is more of the same massive paradigm shift of understanding that is deeply changing thought about human behavior.  We talk about the Anthropocene, but these recent insights are at the same level as the Renaissance or the Enlightenment and just as powerful -- maybe more. Everything is interactions in patterns.  Even the line between life and not-life has been erased.  Kids know.  Zombies!

Instead of attacking the bush meat hunters, as conservationists are wont to do in defense of valued species, Wolfe sees that that bush meat hunters are innocently surviving, but also -- more crucially -- redefines them as “sentinels” watching what turns out to be a great squirming complex of interactions, some definable as viruses mutating and interacting.  It turns out that HIV is a long-ago weaving of at least two simian IV’s, slightly mutated, conveyed to chimps (who also hunt bush meat) who were the jump donors to the world pandemic.   And that the blood of these hunters is saturated with many versions of SIV, HIV, and their antibodies -- among other microbes, some entirely unknown until now.

Now I’m going to make a leap.  It’s no secret that for almost a decade I’ve been following along with a group that tries to get young male sexworkers off the city streets.  Families in economic distress take it out on their children and find excuses to get rid of them: drugs, gay, defiance, HIV, truancy, whatever.  The male path is a little different from that of the female, which is somehow romanticized.  It's easier to throw a boy out.  Or make them leave.

Street Boy Sentinel

These boys in their “jungle survival” engage in extreme behavior -- violence, drugs, infection, cons, scams and hustles (which they mostly learn by barely surviving them) -- as arduous as hunting monkeys in the jungle (which also requires endurance and strategy).  What if they, too, were made virus sentinels, recording blood, spit and spunk on filter paper?  What if in major cities the cruising streets (which are easily found by watching smartphone activity in the transmission towers) each had a machine like an ATM that provided clean filter paper cards, then later accepted them back with samples and spit out a five dollar bill.  Cameras would have to be absent and police, public health workers, and obsessed customers must be somehow blocked.  The machines would have to be secret, because our righteous public order-keepers are predatory.  Our systems of control are cell-based, literally.  Incarceration.  Confinement.  Quarantine. Walls.  Stigma, which is a wall. 

Guinea worm mature and emerging.

We are told that guinea worms have been eliminated from human infection -- a great triumph!  But then it turns out that the pariah dogs that clean the streets by eating garbage and carrion, including human corpses, are loaded with guinea worms, which they get from eating contaminated fish guts discarded by humans.  How hunters survive, what they are hoping to capture in the web of life, is always changing.  All walls are temporary.  

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