An Epidemic of Contagion Hysteria
A few weeks ago, the Chinese killed 10,000 civets, a weasel-like animal that was, until recently, served as a delicacy in restaurants.
According to CNN, researchers found "traces of the virus [believed to cause SARS]... on cages in the restaurant where civet cats were kept as well as in a wildlife market."
Without any explanation for how the jump might have happened, experts from the World Health Organization said it was "good evidence" that SARS jumped from animals to humans.
Researchers found *some* genetic sequences that have *similarity* to the "new strain" of coronavirus *purported* to cause SARS. The civets weren't sick, but it was too close for comfort, so the animals had to die. Thousands of people in close contact with these animals - sometimes for years - *didn't* get sick. However, it just takes one case for contagion to make world headlines.
A team in The Netherlands tested over 400 SARS patients and found *fragments* of that new coronavirus in 75% of them, using the most powerful genetic fragment-finding technique known, the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). A Canadian team found similar genetic fragments that are distantly related to a coronavirus (thus a "new strain") in only 40% of their SARS cases.
But who could doubt, after 20 months of headlines, that SARS is caused by this new strain of coronavirus? After all, some people *die* of this disease. Doubting the cause is like denying the deaths or insulting the dead, isn't it? Besides, who can be bothered by such discrepancies when there are animals to be killed and campaigns to wage in the name of public health to fight a contagious epidemic?
People don't die without at least one piece of aberrant genetic material in them, and high-tech medicine has the machines to find that piece, to find the *cause* of their disease, to put a comfortable, contagious cushion between that disease and any social conditions that might have led one body to get sick rather than another.
From the news reports and the periodic scares about epidemics, we are to understand that diseases aren't as simple, as clear - frankly, as boring - as products of the environments we live in. No, people now die of germs, of viruses, of mutant proteins (prions), of "superbugs" that demand new classes of drugs, all of them. And, of course, publicly funded research will be necessary to develop the technologies to fight them all.
On the other side of the world, the US government has killed 450 calves that might have been harboring the deadly prions that are linked to human variant Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease (CJD), more commonly known as "mad cow." Another herd has been quarantined.
Our trusty machines - PCR saves the day once again - has assured us that this horrible single-cow outbreak has nothing to do with our lax meat inspections, or on the horrendous conditions in which these animals are raised. Nope, we amplified a fragment of the sick cow's DNA and the truth is out: the contagious culprit came from the Canadians.
R.C. Lewontin, the Harvard geneticist with a penchant for sobering assessments of the mythos of DNA, has expressed serious doubts about the trustworthiness of genetic testing. Others in the field have echoed this sentiment.
So long as the public remains confused about the vast gulf between correlation and causation, any disease cluster can appear contagious, and technology will find a particle to justify that appearance.
The medical research community is looking all over for microscopic villains that might jump from animals to people, thus causing the diseases that can fill headlines, justify research grants, inspire screenwriters and allow our imaginations to run wild. Every new appearance of infectious disease is followed by a search for an animal that it jumped from. After all, didn't HIV jump from simian monkeys to humans in Africa? And that viral beast has been ravishing the world since.
Well, actually, new research calls into question the notion that HIV crossed from animals to humans. Almost 2 decades after that theory was put forth, accepted as fact, and propagated around the globe as part of AIDS lore, researchers in the latest issue of Frontiers of Bioscience politely note, "although the hypothesis of simian origin of AIDS is nowadays largely acknowledged, the idea that AIDS is a zoonosis [human disease transmitted from animals] has never been proven and must be questioned."
And what about that new herpes virus, HHV-8, that was supposed to cause Kaposi's sarcoma in AIDS patients back in the mid-90s? Or HHV-6, another herpes virus that was supposed to cause *something*, possibly chronic fatigue or even AIDS itself? Or HTLV-1, which "causes" leukemia in less than 1% of those in whom it is found, 40-or-so years after infection? Or the Ebola virus, that most deadly contagious bug that can't seem to spread its way out of limited communities in Africa?
After the headlines are over, many of these are largely forgotten.
Perhaps a few hundred scientific articles get devoted to their fascinating genetic variances, their ability to do wonders in artificial lab settings, and other important data now buried by newer distractions. There are small groups still devoted to their study, but the rest of the headlines have moved on to more exciting news.
Autoimmune diseases, neurological diseases and now even heart disease is believed to have an infectious component. Yes, heart disease - that most archetypal of lifestyle diseases - finds itself within the precision scope of the germ hunters. Previous infection by cytomegalovirus and Herpes simplex-1 are both now linked to an increased risk of heart disease. Fortunately, even *newer* technology has come along which will allow genetically engineered viruses to be injected into diseased hearts. Experts think it might help.
Coincidentally, so does the biotechnology industry.
In the end, it just doesn't matter how loose any connection is between a genetic fragment and a disease. Hyper-sophisticated equipment developed with public funds is built *specifically* to find germs linked to diseases, to find contagion. As far as headlines are concerned, correlation is the same as causation.
In labs, artificial conditions coax those germs into doing things to special types of cells cultivated for just this purpose. The results are what we call "news," and drug therapies follow in a short time. It is lunacy. As long as the headlines keep the hysteria up, the medical industrial complex can keep milking the fear that follows.
The idea of contagion was once a method for explaining disease transmission. In the era of corporate medicine it has been transformed into a mythology, an instrument of fear, and a source of enormous profit. The public has been schooled on the evils of contagion much longer than it has been schooled on terrorists. As we know, the corporate system, with generous public funding, is very adept at turning fear into profit.
The majority of people in this world suffer undernutrition or malnutrition, heightened stress and anxiety, polymedication and increasing environmental exposures, poverty, poor sanitation and a host of other disease risks. These things unquestionably lead to a corresponding decrease in immunity and an increase in mortality from infections. *Every* infection is more dangerous in an unwell body.
Blaming the bug that causes the damage is diverting attention from the real issue.
Technologies, while potentially neutral in and of themselves, can also operate in the interest of the corporate State, and serve to protect the institutions that create and perpetuate the social causes of immune suppression. Medical technologies, given voice by technicians trained to convert data into biological facts, create complicated, technical descriptions out of reality. After all, if a piece of DNA, or RNA, or a misshaped protein is associated with a disease, and medical researchers say it is the cause, who can argue? Literally: who is allowed to argue without being ridiculed by the "scientific community"?
Recognizing the social origins of our disease resistance and susceptibility is a radical act. Refusing to allow technologies to exploit fears of contagion is not only humanizing, but revolutionary.
It is a vital step in transforming our society into one that sustains our bodies, instead of one that abuses them.
Contagion is a profitable metaphor, and it is only by divorcing care for health from the seduction of profit that a truly meaningful system of health care can emerge.
Greg Nigh is a naturopathic physician and licensed acupuncturist practicing in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.