On communicability

Hey, here’s a riddle: what’s more dangerous than an al Qaeda member with a plane ticket and a shoe bomb? Answer: an al Qaeda member with a plane ticket and no shoe bomb!

OK, perhaps that’s not as funny as I thought. But here’s the point: we are all suicide bombers. Not in terms of our mental potential, but in terms of our awesome potential to spread disease. Each one of us could carry the seeds of pandemic within us. Take the explosion of a single sneeze, and imagine it wafting outwards to a circle of individuals, incubating, and then exploding in another sneeze. Speed up the time lapse and you have a true human bomb, whose radius dwarfs anything from the nuclear era.

Segueing wildly, I note that you can get away with anything in an airport book. I am often caught up by the contrast between being in a relatively sterile, highly controlled environment, and the sheer number of pages within said environment being devoted to serial killers, mass murder, and the like. It’s a bit like having mixology manuals at an AA meeting. Incongruous.

The reason I bring that up is that I assume there will come a point where my thought crimes will be discovered. That is, the fact that I speculate on death and destruction and mayhem will be seen as some sort of indication that I am heavily involved in said acts. To which I reply: airport books.

With that proviso in place, let us veer back into our own lane and talk about a really cool resource, the Influenza Research Database (http://www.fludb.org/brc/home.do?decorator=influenza). This remarkable resource is beautifully organized so that you can find out up-to-date information about numerous parameters about your favorite virus (if your favorite virus happens to be influenza). This actually includes sort of a Google Maps-like representation of where a given virus happens to be a the time. Here, let’s try it:

Now, that’s just some random flu strains from 2007, as opposed to more recent and juicier drug resistant or increased virulence strains. Nonetheless, you get the idea. Or if you don’t, we can create our own airport book:

“Dr. Lecter entered the warehouse, oblivious to the low moans of the animals in the cages on the floor. Only most would not have seen experimental animals, but people, many lying shivering in what little space was available to them. He noted with pleasure that the creature in Cage #31 seemed particularly bright-eyed but mute, the fever from Cage #30 already taking him away. The speed of infection was increasing, as Dr. Lecter had predicted it would. The crossover between the West Virginia and Kentucky variants had occurred. He began spraying down the now useless Cages #14-16 with his own enzymatic brew, Decorpsase, and smiled as the flesh began to melt. Some of the animals looked on in horror; most just stared into an all-too-certain future.”

None of this is to indict the Influenza Research Database, which is a true public health marvel and already contains a number of quite appropriate safeguards. Indeed, even without the organizing glory of this database much of the information is already available via Google, which can now in many cases more quickly and accurately track flu trends than can researchers (what, you don’t believe me? http://www.google.org/flutrends/).

These world trends maps continue to just amaze me. I sometimes think there should be a Google Evil Trends, a map that shows the prevalence of evil in the world at any one place and time. If you followed Evil Trends back into the past there are certain predictions you could make. If we assume that the Web designers had done their job properly, Evil would be black, and certainly there were areas of Poland circa the early 1940s that would have been very black indeed. But as you rotated your globe, you would have come across a region that virtually sucked you into its Stygian darkness: Harbin, China. The home of Unit 731.

This somewhat innocuous-sounding name hid an epicenter of suffering that easily rivaled the better-known Nazi death camps. The site in Japanese-occupied China was home to some of the most horrific human experimentation into biowarfare (amongst other insanities) since the distribution of smallpox-laced blankets to Amerindians. And to bring it all home, there were small, ventilated huts where subjects could be placed side-by-side. It is unclear whether this was to test or evolve communicability, or was merely to give better access to the rats and fleas that carried plague to the hapless victims. The experiments were a roaring success, and led to the development of plague bombs that killed hundreds of thousands.

Pogo and I have previously suggested that we are our own worst enemies. But indeed it is worse than that: our very bodies are our own worst enemies, capable of carrying replicating horrors that will infect our friends and family and children. Perhaps it is an atavistic fear of disease that keeps the rather trivial engineering of communicability from being a reality in our lifetimes. Or perhaps our public health structure will keep disaster from our door. Or maybe we’re just whistling past the graveyard.

- originally posted on Saturday, December 18th, 2010