Puncturing the Hygienic Bubble

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When the US surgeon general, Dr. Julius B. Richmond, declared in 1979 that the once-great killers were under control, he based his statement on “changes in lifestyles resulting from a growing awareness of the impact of certain habits on health” (1979: 4). American people were healthier than ever, and life-threatening infectious diseases had been significantly reduced. The paradigm of the affluent world had eventually defeated pathogens. According to the idea of progress, humans could only look forward and expect that biohazard kept reducing as every evil bug was readily counteracted by the proper vaccine. Yet, history does not move steadily but on quirk episodes, as Gould reminds. Although there has been an undeniable advance in the handling of certain pathogens, other diseases have never ceased to grow. While the action of some microbes on the human being has been remarkably mitigated, others still remain out of reach, and yet others are returning in newer sturdier forms. Because of our anthropocentric conception of the world, we thought we had made ourselves a kind of hygienic bubble which would protect us from any pathogenic menace. Nothing could be more unreal. The AIDS example is perhaps the most suitable to express such delusion, but there are many other diseases willing to burst the illusionary bubble. It is high time that such a false assumption was demystified once and forever.

Thus, it looks wise enough to realise how the myth of the so-called “hygienic bubble” has come to be what it is today. This can only mean a closer look at history, paying attention to the recorded events of natural epidemics, acts of biowarfare or bioterrorism and biological accidents. It definitely seems that all such episodes, alone or in conjunction, have reached some authors and compelled them to write a book. It is the power of culture at its best, a social constructionist view of language, which should make us realise “that changing narratives, telling stories differently, might change the social world, and that the goal of work on and with language is a politics committed to social change” (Threadgold 2004: 1). Precisely this new representation of reality based on accurate historical facts becomes the chief support of the biohazard novel. Since the action is based on truthful episodes of biological threats, the derivative projections can hardly be discarded. Hence, all the naïve postulations of sanitary safety crumble before the unquestionable power of history.

The needle that punctures the bubble may have different names –Ebola, influenza, plague, …– and thus be bacterial or viral in form. Still, there has been generalised agreement in calling such agent “Andromeda” according to the late Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (1969), a bestselling debut and milestone to biohazard literature. So what is found in these novels is basically a tale of Andromeda piercing the bubble and demolishing humankind’s artificial tenet of biological domination. These are mostly stories of existing microbial predators that have haunted mankind for centuries and plan to continue ravaging our kind. Humans cannot possibly pretend to subjugate all communicable and infectious diseases with a universal antidote. It is not so simple. Money cannot simply buy such privilege. Sooner or later, the slightest mutation in an agent’s DNA will render the vaccine innocuous, hence facilitating the propagation of a new pandemic. In fact, according to the experts, the next great plague seems to be just round the corner (1). That if we do not originate it accidentally or on purpose. There is no such thing as first, second and third world in terms of epidemiology. If there is an outbreak, the pathogen can reach anywhere in the planet in a matter of hours. Never in the history of our race had it been easier for a disease to spread in such a swift manner. It can well be stated that air transportation has become the catalyst of a most unwanted process, but poverty and climatic change also contribute significantly. Obviously, this is a social evidence permeating into the mind of those who consider a biological crisis.

It really is difficult to state when exactly the bubble was inflated. It is rather a gradual course of action that appears to take a faster path during the second half of the twentieth century. The average life expectancy in 1900 was just about thirty-one years, and not even fifty in the richest countries (Thomson Prentice 2006: 7). As of today, the average lifespan in the countries of the European Union is about seventy-five years for men and around eighty for women. In general, there has been an undeniable improvement of the living conditions during the twentieth century. However, it has not been universal. Even within the European Union, in countries such as Latvia or Lithuania, an ordinary citizen should not expect to live more than sixty-five years (European Comission 2007: 6). Not to mention Swaziland, where average life expectancy is still below thirty-two years (CIA 2009). Therefore, the promise of a long successful life is quite an invention of the affluent world, which does not seem to find a real explanation in figures. Certainly, the discovery of penicillin in the 1920s and its commercialisation in the 1940s produced a global optimistic mood, which was enhanced with the generalisation of antibacterial and antiviral treatments in the 1960s and 1970s. But, above all, the eradication of smallpox in 1977 could have made us believe that the war against pathogenic diseases was won –note that the report of the US surgeon general was also issued in the late seventies.

AIDS and the haemorrhagic fevers became known in the eighties, but in general people still believed the illusion that they would soon be subdued while, on the contrary, their numbers kept growing incessantly. The continuous deterioration of the environment has allowed certain tropical diseases to come out of their natural world and arrive at places where they were unknown. For instance, in 1989 a haemorrhagic virus appeared in the American conurbations of Reston, Alice and Philadelphia, US as well as in Siena, Italy (2). Only a specialist was acquainted with Ebola before the Reston incident but Preston’s
The Hot Zone (1994) readily made it an international star. Other similar diseases have made brief appearances in Europe and the US ever since and are expected to come more and more often in the near future (3). The list includes variants of influenza, plague and Rift Valley Fever (RVF), which have inspired some biohazard writers, so ignoring the evidence is becoming increasingly harder. However, it seems undeniable that the myth of the hygienic bubble has gradually drenched into the western mind with no fundamental data to support it.

Furthermore, technological advances have made genetic engineering possible, thus dramatically boosting the potential of a biological accident. Despite all the warnings concerning transgenic organisms, experimentation in the field has continued mostly unregulated (Epstein 2004, Greenpeace 2008, Netlink 2008). It is an obvious reality that gene therapy holds a marvellous potential to overcome certain diseases. No rational mind would oppose a scientific improvement directly deriving into an utter benefit for the human kind. That much is unquestionable. However, the alteration of stem cells may result into a permanent modification of the race and that is at least worrisome. While it is acceptable that there is no reward without risk, the prospect of a biological doom has also grown exponentially with the breakthrough. Such controversy has also reached the biohazard writer, who tends to question whether excessively permissive guidelines on genetic engineering may end up in the creation of a biological chimera. It is an open secret that there has been and there is a lot of dark research in the field. The prospect of a wild microbial killer going loose by accident or set free by an army or terrorist organisation is most appalling.

Yet, most western citizens pretend to be unaware of the possibility and accept the pharma’s mantra on the benefits of genetic engineering. As early as 1978, Genentech, a leading company in the field, proudly announced to the world that it had been successful in the laboratory production of human insulin using recombinant DNA technology (Genentech 1978). Other boastful proclamations can be found in the press release section of the company. Curiously, though, no article comes out by searching the word ‘biohazard’ and only cerebrovascular disorders appear when the word ‘accident’ is introduced. That can hardly be called unbiased information. By pumping such euphoric data to the world, the illusion of a hygienic bubble is safely maintained.

Instead, the renowned authority Robert Lanza MD, Vice President of Research & Scientific Development at Advanced Cell Technology, and Adjunct Professor at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, claims that we are fooling ourselves. In his view, “part of the thrill that came with the announcement that the human genome had been mapped …rests in our desire for completeness.” We want to be gods. We still need to believe that we have been made in God’s image and likeness. But “…most of these comprehensive theories are no more than stories that fail to take into account one crucial factor: we are creating them” (2007: 1-2). Genetic engineering has just boosted our thoughtlessness. We think the genetic miracle will eventually place the human being where it deserves and the last medical frontier shall at last be conquered: microbes will be subdued. We keep deeming nothing can stop us from attaining our dream. Yet, as Lanza states, it is just a fairy-tale that we have devised to trick ourselves.

In sum, there are scientific reports stating that old microbial fiends are coming back brawnier than ever and that tropical bugs moving upwards due to global warming have joined them. There is a dubious regulation over microbial engineering with, at least, a few biological accidents acknowledged which will be explained later. There have been reported cases of biowarfare ever since the Romans and growing prospects of bioterrorism by today’s terrorist organisations. There are writers gathering all these data and casting out extrapolations of what the eventual outcome may be. But still, humans seem to have an incontestable faith in the power of medicine to overcome such biological threats. The western world wants to believe that it is protected inside a hygienic bubble.


Notes

1. Asked about the next flu pandemic, the molecular biologist and Nobel Prize in Physiology Joshua Lederberg
said:

"We're going to see it. Now, it won't be this year. It may not be next year. And I would not want to predict when that is going to happen. Nobody has ever succeeded in predicting the next flu pandemic. But that I think it will happen is a virtual certainty. We will live to see it. Is the next flu pandemic going to be as bad as 1918? None of them yet has been, but someday it's going to have to happen" (Mirsky 1997).

2. A footnote at WHO’s Ebola factsheet states that:

“A fourth virus subtype, Ebola-Reston, was detected in October 1989 in Reston, Virginia (USA) in a colony of cynomolgus monkeys (Macacus fascicularis) imported from the Philippines, and in November 1989 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, also in monkeys imported from the same supplier. Subsequent outbreaks of Reston-Ebola disease in nonhuman primates occurred in 1990 in the USA (Reston, Virginia and Alice, Texas), in 1992 in Italy (Sienna), and in 1996 in the USA (Alice, Texas). Investigations traced the source of all outbreaks caused by the Reston strain to one export facility in the Philippines (Laguna Province), but the mode of contamination of this facility was not elucidated.” (WHO 2008a)

3. On 7 October 2008, researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society released a report at the 2008 World Conservation Congress in Barcelona. It was entitled “The Deadly Dozen: Wildlife Diseases in the Age of Climate Change” and it supplied a list of twelve pathogens whose action is likely to activate in the present and near future on account of climatic change. However, it went largely unnoticed by the major public media, perhaps with the exception of The Daily Telegraph, which published a series of articles in 2008 about the re-emergence of infectious diseases (Wildlife 2008, Eccleston 2008, Highfield 2008 and R. Smith 2008).

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