Tuesday, April 21, 2020


Two major epidemics have affected the history of the Blackfeet but are largely unknown, even by the People themselves.  One was an epidemic of trachoma that blinded many people and the other was a plague of mange that caused a great many horses to be killed.  it also affected dogs.

Alonzo Skunkcap lived in a log cabin two doors down from the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife.  He was very old and had been blinded by trachoma, (awkwardly related to STD) a disease that settles in tender sexual organs instead of eyes.  Wood stoves made eyes easy targets because the floating particulate irritated them.  So many people went blind that other tribes called the Blackfeet “the one-eyed people.”

Trachoma is a contagious bacterial infection that affects the surface of the eyes. Over time, scar tissue or ulcers can form that lead to blindness. Currently around 1.9 million people worldwide are blind or visually impaired by trachoma, and it remains a public health problem in 44 countries.”

When the much-maligned Doug Gold came to Browning because his father was the Presbyterian minister in town, and became the superintendent of schools, he had a friend back east who was an expert eye doctor.  He arranged for the man to come to treat the sufferers and also to teach Gold and others how to treat the infection themselves.  It was simple.  One used a matchstick to roll the eyelid inside out and coated the underside with a medicinal ointment that killed the infection, which was not a virus.  These were the early days of antibiotics.

Recorded knowledge of trachoma dates back as far as 1900 bc , with descriptions appearing in the Egyptian Ebers papyrus. Ancient Greek physicians were also familiar with the disease, and Galen described the rough inner lining of the upper eyelid that is symptomatic of repeated infections. Ibn 'Isa, an Arab physician during the 11th century, correctly observed that chronic trachoma infection results in trichiasis, which is a painful condition characterized by infolding of the upper eyelid such that the eyelashes scratch the cornea. European experiences with trachoma were first noted during the French occupation of Egypt in the late 18th century. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, trachoma emerged as a well-documented public health problem in England, parts of Europe, and the United States, with several nations forming eye hospitals whose specific aim was the treatment and quarantine of the disease.”

My “learning” horse was cheap because he was suspected of mange, which was an historical pandemic among horses. The cavalry simply shot hundreds of horses to stop it, though it meant the people lost their wealth.  I had remembered this as happening here, but now I think it happened more to the Nez Perce herds.  I can’t find historical confirmation online as Wikis tend to avoid such topics.

When I was hired to monitor Jr. Hi. study halls in 1988, I was also required to watch the school buses arrive to prevent bullying as well as catching those who saw a good chance to ditch school.  I sat on a parapet to watch and a dog would come to visit with me.  I petted him and saw he had a homemade collar that said, “Imitah.”  Blackfeet for dog.  But I didn’t register that this dog had mange.  I was dumb.

The boy who had collared the dog asked me why I paid attention to it.  Then he told his father and the dog disappeared.  The father knew mange and knew the definitive cure for it.  The boy told me his father had “taken my dog to the country.”  I’m ashamed to be so ignorant.

TB and polio were both once prevalent on the Blackfeet rez.  At one point in the Fifties, before the vaccine, tourists would be afraid to stop in Browning or if they had to, would stay in their cars and just roll down the windows a crack to ask questions.  Before I could teach in 1961, I had to have a TB test.  Testing as many people as possible was one of the ways TB was brought under control, though the bug still lingers.  

If one accepts the premise that living things are defined by nuclei with DNA contents (and a few other fragments of DNA in small bodies inside the cell) and that DNA fragments can float and move throughout the air, water, and soil, then we must also accept that DNA are bits of life instructions that can be either helpful or not, devastating or unnoticed. Diseases are only visible manifestations of the underlying and persistent causes, which are poverty, inability to wash up with soap. bad nutrition, decaying shelter and the like.  

There is a major collection of knowledge about viruses, esp. those of “colds” and “flu” that are capable of morphing quickly so they renew their potency.  Much of the work on Corvid19 is informed by SARS and MERS, other viruses that crossed from animals to create pandemics, though not as big or global as this one.  HIV comes closer, but is so stigmatized that scientists and media both avoid talking about it, which is not helpful.

“Two or 6 minutes of exposure to soap and water decreased the infectivity of HIV by more than 1000-fold, the authors report in the medical journal Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy. When the virus was in a CVL-seminal fluid mixture, a stronger concentration of soap in water was required to reduce viral infectivity by 30-fold.”

It’s impossible to scrub the body internally, so the virus is safe inside someone unless there are antibodies or some drug that can change its DNA/RNA directions.  But it is never emphasized enough that soap is a necessity and often not available to a victim of poverty or homelessness.

My intimate adventures were before HIV, so I worried more about pregnancy or poverty. I was more endangered by the latter.  Nevertheless, this household of cats today could easily bring in zoonoses from grassland rodents, like hantavirus, lymphocytic choriomeningitis, tularemia, and plague.  One does not normally wash cats with soap and water, nor do they wash the mice they catch.

There is a theory of health that talks about living in an alert and harmonious way, holistically.  This becomes relevant when challenges are so undetectable, omnipresent, and potentially devastating.  But there’s another angle which is nearly opposite, which is that the body’s protections “learn” according to exposure and if nothing is ever present, always disinfected or prevented, the immune system is dumb.  Its book has no pages.  This is also a point of view I accept, so that leaves me with contradictions.

A third approach, which I like, notes that the body produces its own preventatives as molecules that come from internal organs, generated by happiness and safety.  A contented and productive life often means good health.  As a culture we are not supporting this as much as we should.  One can only pretend to sell happiness; it’s not for sale. In fact, it’s not found through pursuit. It is an emergence from a lot of other things, including risk.

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