When Germs Travel
Bio 103: Book Commentary
When Germs Travel
Dr. Howard Markel’s book When Germs Travel resonated with me because of what we’ve been discussing in Bio 103 this semester. The beginning of the course was all about getting us to look at science in a new way. We were asked to view science as a story that was unfolding, rather than a fixed and absolute truth. Dr. Markel, like a good Bryn Mawr biology student, approaches “the struggle against deadly microbes” much in this way, stating that he told this story because “there is a narrative power to the epidemics [germs] can cause” (7). When Germs Travel illustrates the spread of epidemic as both a scientific and a cultural phenomenon. He narrates the progression of six epidemics during two waves of immigration, and shows how Americans turned to anti-immigration in a time of fear and uncertainty. He includes chronicles of tuberculosis, the bubonic plague, trachoma, typhus, HIV/AIDS, and for reasons unknown, a strange gastrointestinal illness. These shed light on the victimization of immigrants as a result of a cultural crisis.
One thing Dr. Markel does well is a balanced integration of science into the narrative. The science never becomes too complicated or overwhelms the story. Instead, the germs have characters and stories of their own. As a reader, we receive the story from various perspectives. There is usually a character or a few characters that are the focal point of the story, and their trajectory is being narrated. There is also the general historical context in which the scenario is taking place that provides informative and engaging background information. Finally, there is the story of what is going on at the micro level, described with just enough action to make it interesting. In the tuberculosis case, “When the stalemate between the germ’s offensive line and the host’s immune defenses tips in favor of the germ, the real war begins” (26). Later, the Yersinia germs responsible for the bubonic plague stage a “microbiologic coup d’etat” (53).
Despite these playful dramatizations of the germ’s war against the human immune system, Dr. Markel is offering a very real critique of the way we have dealt with public health crises in this country. He offers scathing social commentary in his remarks, “Quarantines, cordons sanitaires, immigration depots, and long inspection lines all represent a past era’s responses to the containment of contagion. Today, these antiquated approaches are no longer up to the job” (209). However, have Americans managed to put the past behind them? I personally felt this book had a huge correlation to the current H1N1 pandemic, or as it is known colloquially, “swine flu.”
When the first cases of swine flu caused death in Mexico, there were increased anti-immigration whispers in the media. The fast spread of this relatively unknown disease left people in a panic, convinced that migrants from Mexico would bring the deadly disease with them and unleash it in the United States like a biological weapon. Voices of reason were ignored in the panic, those saying that the majority of people in the U.S. who had contracted the disease had survived it, and that it’s death rate was actually lower than the seasonal influenza virus. People brought into hospitals with flu-like symptoms were placed in quarantine and seen by doctors in gas masks and hazmat suits. The government declared the pandemic a national emergency and schools all over the country shut down when a child became infected.
In the tradition of Dr. Markel, I would like to offer the story of my personal experience with the H1N1 pandemic. I live in a dormitory on my college’s campus. I have a single room in a suite of five, so I was wary, though not quite anxious, when my suitemate next door fell ill. Not least because I was leaving for my big birthday weekend soon, I gave this fellow a wide berth, though I brought him food when he required it. My suitemate across the hall, whom we will call Susan, had more sympathy for his plight than I had, and cuddled with him while he was sick. Viruses work slightly differently than do germs, so my sick suitemate must not have been careful enough to wash his hands before receiving a hug from Susan. Maybe he had coughed or sneezed into his hand and forgot it, and poor Susan had slapped a hand to her mouth to stifle a yawn.
Susan likely forgot about the exchange before she embarked on the birthday trip with me and two good friends. We had a good night out and the dessert menu at my birthday dinner looked tempting. Susan offered to share a dessert with my friend Chelsea. Though they used separate spoons, particles of saliva likely mixed in with the frozen treat and found their way into the mouth of an unsuspecting Chelsea. It wasn’t until the next night that Susan felt ill. By the morning we had to leave, Susan was suffering from a fever and I finally caved to my own sympathies to comfort my sick friend. Forgetting I’d touched Susan’s hand (the hand used to cover her cough), I grabbed a bag of breakfast chips on my way onto the bus. Needless to say, by the end of the night, Chelsea and I were down for the count. I’d avoided contracting the virus directly from my original sick suitemate only to find it later on down the path of infection. A trip to the hospital later revealed the mysterious sickness to be the dreaded H1N1. By the time Chelsea discovered this information, the hospital was making preparations for quarantine, insisting that she wasn’t allowed back on campus. Luckily the school didn’t subscribe so heartily to the widespread panic over the pig flu, and Chelsea was in fact allowed back on campus, though given a gas mask. As for the rest of us, we knew better than to out ourselves as victims of the swine flu.
It ended up with three out of my five suitemates self-quarantined with the H1N1 virus. One suitemate may have been immune, because he never showed symptoms, but his girlfriend later fell ill, suggesting that he was a carrier for the virus. My other particularly cautious suitemate, Sarah, would ask routinely for permission to spray Lysol on our doorknobs and would slather her hands with Purell on the hour. Though we exchanged exasperated looks and chuckles at her expense, little Sarah did not, in fact, get sick. Dr. Markel’s message shines through my little anecdote. Mass panic and quarantine are not always the answers. Sometimes it’s just Lysol.