Recently, I mentioned the Swine Flu pandemic in association with Mothman. And as I have mentioned many times in the past, I used to work for an epidemiologist. I loved the work to a degree. I enjoyed the mystery and puzzle of figuring out an outbreak of communicable diseases. But not every epidemiologist studies communicable disease outbreaks. My boss did communicable as well as cancer cluster research and it was cancer clusters that proved to me I couldn’t do the work for the rest of my life. Even though my boss was quite willing to use his connections to help me train as an epidemiological researcher.
In the very early months of Spring 2009, the H1N1 flu virus mutated and became a much more deadly strain than it had been for 90 years. The first cases and deaths happened in the state of Veracruz, Mexico. Viruses and bacteria mutate at an amazing rate. Most of the mutations are harmless, but every so often, the mutations make the virus or bacteria either more communicable or more deadly or both.
In the spring of 1918, a private stationed at Fort Riley in Kansas reported to the medical bay with fever, sore throat, cough, and other symptoms. By the end of the day, there were 100 more soldiers in For Riley complaining of the same symptoms. The flu outbreak that started in Fort Riley, Kansas would race around the globe and become known as the Spanish Flu pandemic. It too was a mutation of the H1N1 flu virus.
The Black Death, the Justinian Plague, and the Antonine Plague were all caused by mutations within the bacteria Y. Pestis, better known as Bubonic Plague. We do not believe either the Justinian or Antonine Plague were communicable person to person (plague rarely spreads that way, it nearly always has to have a zoological host to spread. However, new research shows the only way the Black Death – one of the worst pandemics to ever appear on Earth in recorded history – spread as rapidly and effectively as it did is if that mutation became communicable person to person. When archaeologists found a mass grave outside Constantinople what they had really found was a treasure trove of information on the Justinian Plague. While the bacteria was dead, the bacteria corpses could be studied and was. Until we found mass graves associated with the Justinian and Antonine Plague, we weren’t sure what had caused them, because accounts of the illness and death that followed did not align with what we knew of Bubonic Plague.
Before the flu vaccine and people learned about and started practicing better hygiene in the 1940s and 50s. Flu pandemics used to crop up about every 30 years. Between 1860 and 2009 there were 5 flu pandemics that killed millions. Spanish Flu in 1918, Asiatic Flu (H2N2) in 1951, in 1893, and in 1867.
You don’t need a deadly pathogen to get deadly results either. In 2003 an epidemic started in China that would become known as SARS. The culprit, a mutated form of the coronavirus. But what? There’s a really good chance that nearly every person who reads this blog post will suffer the effects of some form of coronavirus before the Spring of 2019, because coronaviruses cause the common cold, a disease that may make a person miserable, but it’s mortality rate is basically zero.
HIV was the same way. Part of the reason it has been so hard to track down the origin of the HIV virus is because until the 1970s, HIV was not an infectious or deadly pathogen. Contrary to popular opinion, HIV was known about before it became a pandemic, but it was a non-issue. Lots of people carried it and there were no side effects from carrying it. In fact, it was no different than a coronavirus (nearly everyone carries coronaviruses all the time, only showing symptoms once in a while when the virus has multiplied enough to overwhelm our immune system and during non-symptomatic times, it is not infectious). HIV had no symptoms, no mortality rate, and was carried without problems for decades, so it wasn’t tracked or even talked about. It was one of the many viruses a human body could carry without ill effect. Then suddenly, it wasn’t. What we need to know is whether the virus became deadly while in a human host or a zoological host… that would give us our best shot at finding a vaccine. Which we may or may not need anymore.
I remember HIV and AIDS being in the news a lot when I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s. It’s not anymore and not just because treatments are helping people live longer. It’s mutating itself out of importance. The mortality rate and communication rate of HIV have diminished within the virus itself, meaning it’s not all due to awareness and treatments.
Viral pandemics are more common than bacterial pandemics simply because viruses are more difficult to treat and mutate faster. Meaning we are more likely to see another flu pandemic than a plague pandemic.