“Even the company of the mad was better than the company of the dead.”
So wrote Stephen King in his apocalyptic magnum opus, The Stand.
First published in 1978, and re-released in a complete/uncut version twelve years later, the horror classic about the impact of a killer virus has sold more than 5 million copies. A signed, special edition version now commands a price of four thousand dollars on the secondary book market.
In the hands of a solid writer, themes concerning pandemics, plagues, and unseen biological perils are the stuff profits are made of. Classics like The Scarlet Plague by Jack London, The Last Man by Mary Shelly (yes, the lady behind Frankenstein) and more contemporary works such as Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain are sure-fire winners. These books sell because they are scary and just real enough that the reader does not have to significantly suspend disbelief.
Sadly, in these times, no one has to go to the local Barnes and Noble to find such tales — front page news headlines have an overabundance of the material. As Oscar Wilde wrote, “life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”
The tragic case of Thomas Eric Duncan was not fiction and it well illustrated the real life, terrifying consequences of unchecked disease.
Duncan appeared at the Emergency Room of Texas Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas on the evening of September 25, 2014, complaining of nausea, abdominal pain, dizziness and a headache. He was diagnosed with sinusitis and was sent home with prescriptions for antibiotics.
Early September 27th, Duncan’s condition had dramatically worsened; he was returned to Presbyterian by ambulance. It was soon discovered that Duncan had recently come to Dallas from Monrovia, Liberia, an epicenter of the Ebola virus epidemic. Contact was made with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and on September 30th, Duncan was officially diagnosed with Ebola.
The disease followed its grim course — projectile vomiting, pain and uncontrollable diarrhea, periods of improvement followed by sharp deterioration. On October 8th, at 7:51 am, Duncan became the first person in the United States to die from the Ebola virus.
Two of his caregivers also contracted the disease, but subsequently recovered. In all, 177 people who had contact with Duncan were monitored — it wasn’t until November 7th that officials felt confident enough to declare Dallas “Ebola free.”
Following this outbreak, the CDC issued statements underscoring that Ebola is a “rare disease,” but the episode definitely left a mark of uncertainty in the mind of the general public.
The recent cases of Typhus in California — 124 in Los Angeles County in 2018 — have raised similar questions about public safety.
Typhus, a group of infectious diseases spread by lice, chiggers, and fleas, has claimed millions of lives throughout history, including that of Anne Frank in a Nazi concentration camp. Many incorrectly assumed that the disease had been virtually eradicated.
Elizabeth Greenwood, a Deputy City Attorney in LA, proved otherwise. Greenwood contracted Typhus last fall after she noticed insect bites on her ankles, bites which were apparently inflicted by fleas off rats at her City Hall office. The city building, as well as the nearby neighborhood, is known to be heavily infested by rodents.
“The people who live and do business in the city of Los Angeles expect the city of Los Angeles to not casually allow them to catch a medieval disease as they walk into City Hall,” Greenwood said.
Even though she caught Typhus last fall, Greenwood has not be able to return to work. Symptoms of Typhus are excruciating headaches, dizziness, rash and high fever. “I thought I was going to die,” Greenwood, who is seeking legal remedy, stated.
An official investigation has found that city “employees were exposed to unsanitary conditions from trash and bodily fluids at exterior areas.”
Complicating the situation is LA’s exploding homeless population – public debate has become so polarized that meaningful solutions seem remote.
The Duncan and Greenwood cases are but two of many examples of our changing contemporary norms: the World Health Organization’s top ten threats in 2019 include six infectious diseases (some emerging, some historic). Clearly, we remain susceptible to contracting and transmitting these lethal agents.
Poet K.G. Petrone has said: “I would rather live among the monsters within books and on the big screen than with the ones depicted on the 10 o’clock news.” Unfortunately, the ones on the news appear to be the emerging majority.