I’ve been reading the book The Body by Bill Bryson and I thought it worth sharing some of what he wrote pertaining to viruses at this sensitive time.
He tells us about an incident that started in Akureyri in Iceland in 1948 when people came down with an illness which was initially diagnosed as polio. The predominant symptoms were tiredness and exhaustion. The epidemic lasted for more than three months and the total number of reported cases was 488.
During the next 12 months nothing happened until further outbreaks occurred in Kentucky, Alaska, Massachusetts and in Dalston in the far north of England. Not much interest was directed towards the outbreaks until 1970 when 221 fell sick in a US air force base in Texas.
As had been the case previously the outbreak did not fit into any logical pattern and the tests for bacterial or viral agents came back negative. After two months the outbreak ended as mysteriously as it had started with again no logical explanations.
There are many cases of infectious diseases randomly appearing like the Nile virus that suddenly surfaced in New York in 1999. Over the next four years the virus spread across all states in the US.
Way back in time between 1485 and 1551 a sweating sickness killed thousands in Britain before it abruptly stopped and was never seen there again. A similar virus popped up in France 200 years later and then it too mysteriously disappeared.
Lyme disease was only recorded for the first time in the 1970s, by doctors in the US. Since then the disease has become a concern in certain parts of the world and reported cases are on the rise in the Highlands of Scotland.
About 200 people a year in Scotland are recorded with the disease but the true number is thought to be much higher. The disease is a bacterial infection spread by a bite from an infected tick. It can affect primarily the nervous system, so it can start causing paralysis. It can affect the joints and when it gets to this stage antibiotics certainly can get rid of the bacteria but in a percentage of people, they’re left with some quite debilitating symptoms for quite some considerable time.
In 2014, south of Kansas City a healthy middle-aged man was bitten by a tick and shortly thereafter he developed a fever. He was admitted to hospital where unfortunately his condition worsened and 11 days after being bitten, he died of multiple organ failure.
What became known as Bourbon virus was a new class of virus related to thogotoviruses which is normally endemic in parts of Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. It was not until a year later that a man 250 miles away from Kansas City came down with the virus and since then only five cases have been reported.
Ed Yong recently wrote in the Atlantic magazine that our mouths are currently teeming with giant viruses that, until very recently, no one knew existed.
Unlike Ebola or the new coronavirus that’s currently making headlines, these viruses don’t cause disease in humans. They’re part of a group known as phages, which infect and kill bacteria. But while many phages are well studied, these newly discovered giants are largely mysterious. Why are they 10 times bigger than other phages? How do they reproduce? And what are they up to inside our bodies?
We still have a lot to learn.
Gordon is the former president and chief executive of BMMI. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org