When Microbes Attack

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Recently I decided to switch ISPs. I had an account under one of my numerous aliases with Earthlink, and while it worked just fine out on the road, here in New York it usually took seven or eight tries just to get my mail. One fine autumn morning I threw the AOL CD into my little iBook and made the leap.

Now I have another dilemma entirely to deal with. I don't use the Internet to buy stuff. I use the Internet for research and amusement. I enjoy things like Slashdot , "news for nerds, stuff that matters," and I visit sites like ArabicNews.com, where I can get news about the Middle East that, for some reason or another, just doesn't get reported in the major media outlets here. I get updates on spudgun design technology from www.goldmann.com/spudgun.html. Spudguns are great, especially if you live in a noisy neighborhood. I'm interested in nonlethal and unregulated weapons.

My current dilemma is centered around a particularly alarming e-list called ProMED. I still haven't resubscribed, and I'm not sure I should. ProMED is a medical industry-type e-list intended to keep medical professionals abreast of the latest outbreaks, epidemics and plagues. Ever since I read The Hot Zone I've been acutely aware of the need to stay on top of this sort of thing. One of the journalists I most admire is Laurie Garrett, who covered the AIDS beat for Newsday several years ago and authored the scariest book I've ever read, The Coming Plague, an examination of the emerging rainforest viruses and antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. When I worked for the circus, I made it a point to know who had guns on the lot, because tempers flare and things get crazy out on the road, and it's important to know when to go to the bar. If I were working in a fireworks factory, I'd make sure I knew who the smokers were, and I'd keep my eye on them. Living in New York City, I feel compelled to keep track of any little microscopic boogers or cooties that might be inclined to come calling. Ebola would burn through this town like a fire in a cardboard factory, and advance warning would be enough to justify a weekend in Vermont, at the very least.

This advance knowledge creeps in on you. I stopped eating from salad bars years ago because of this thing. I stay out of pools frequented by large numbers of children. I gave up on sushi and steak tartare. Since the anthrax outbreaks in Minnesota, Nevada and Manitoba this past summer, I've been very nervous about eating beef, and I stay out of fast-food joints entirely. The malaria belt has widened, expanding north as far as Sarasota, FL. There were a couple of cases right here recently that didn't involve travel. Malaria killed two million people last year. AIDS is spit in the wind compared to malaria. All four forms of dengue fever have been found in the Dominican Republic. Dengue is one of the most painful ordeals a human body can endure. The Africans call it "breakbone," because that's what it feels like. It's carried by tiger mosquitoes. There weren't any tiger mosquitoes in the United States until a batch of them sailed over in a shipment of tires from Asia, another wonderful benefit of international trade.

Over in Myanmar, our second biggest supplier of heroin, about 5000 people fell ill or died this summer from malaria, anthrax, typhoid, scrub typhus and leptospirosis. I'm thinking we may get a mysterious junkie die-off sometime this winter. If I were into heroin, which I am not, I'd definitely stick to smoking it.

I was getting daily updates on this West Nile River virus phenomenon from ProMED. Short of killing every mosquito in America, there isn't a damn thing to be done about this. I like fresh-squeezed juices, but the argument for pasteurization was driven home by a few illnesses and the death related to Odwalla juice products out West not too long ago.

Sometimes it seems like we're in the midst of a very quiet bio-war. Other times this ProMED stuff just reinforces my belief that Nature is crazy and dangerous, best confronted clad in some kind of variant on Darth Vader's costume, hermetically sealed and filtered, shielded from all the tiny Lovecraftian monsters teeming around on the surface of this world. Maybe you're reading this on the subway. Someone sneezes, and doesn't cover his mouth. A tubercular crackhead shuffles by, hacking and wheezing, and touches you. You put your hand on a railing, and a few seconds later, scratch your nose.

The worst places are New York City hospitals. The hospitals in this city are swarming with mutant bacteria, tougher than the X-Men, bred by improper use of antibiotics, overuse of antibacterial cleansers and doctors who don't have the good common sense to wash their hands between patients or after using the bathroom. You could go in for a routine physical, and emerge with a clean bill of health and a brand new friend: flesh-eating strep.

So I'm very conflicted about resubscribing to this list. On the one hand, I don't trust the government or the media to keep me informed. On the other hand, I'm not so sure I really want to know about the neurological effects of exposure to pfiesteria among fishermen in the Chesapeake Bay. There is an ongoing process of very rapid serial bifurcations taking place in human society right now, and one of the most urgent quandaries for those of us in the well-fed, well-connected West has to do with coping with severe information overload. Prioritizing the information available is difficult at best. Sorting out the information received is just as tricky. The line between hypervigilance and paranoia is a fine line, indeed, and shrinking every day.

(ProMED's website is located at www.promedmail.org. Visit the site for subscription information.)

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