In 1994 Farrar, Strauss and Giroux published The Coming Plague by science-journalist Laurie Garrett. Brigitte read a review of it the following year and immediately ordered the 750 page tome. Just a year after its publication, it had already had fourteen printings. Garrett had spent a decade researching the book, subtitled “Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance,” a monumental portrait of one of the Four Horsemen. Garrett won the Pulitzer Prize for Exploratory Journalism in 1996.
Just recently we’d dug out the book for renewed perusal. Yesterday I saw a story on CNN about a new virus—category coronavirus—that has no known treatment yet and, thus far killed 23 of 44 infected (that’s 52 percent). It’s origins are in the Middle East and the condition produced is called Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). The virus has claimed the most lives in Saudi Arabia and has already spread to France and the United Kingdom in Europe.
I expected stories in the papers today on this outbreak—but saw nothing at all. Until such things show up in the United States, the media, with the admirable exception of CNN, this time, shrug it off. There are plenty of warning voice—some as distinguished as Garrett’s, others less prominent. One of our own publications Social Trends & Indicators USA, Volume 3: Health & Sickness, published in 2003, featured the following graphic:
I reproduce the first paragraph that came with this illustration:
At the timer when news periodically reaches us that now this bacterium and now that virus have become resistant to our antibiotics or antivirals, it may be useful to look at some diseases that the 19th century would have immediately recognized—and some that stem from Biblical times. The graphic charts actual cases of seven such diseases from 1944 to 1999. They are still with us. We are still getting cholera and the bubonic or pneumonic plague. In 1999, for instance there were 35,600 new cases of syphilis and 17,500 people were diagnosed with tuberculosis; more than 1,600 cases of malaria were documented, up from the year before; 350 new cases of typhoid fever were reported, and more than 100 people came down with leprosy. That year, doctors notified the Centers of Disease Control of fewer than 10 cases each of plague and cholera—but these diseases were beginning to show up in some numbers toward the latter part of this 56-year period—having been absent in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.
To which I might add that brand new viruses, such as the most recent variant of MERS, are also busy innovating.