May 25, 2014
In Celebration of Disease Carriers
When I heard on the news that the MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) virus killed 1 out of 3 people who caught it, that number was impressively scary. But I had to wonder what the real mortality rate was. Because it would have been more accurate to report that MERS killed 1 out of 3 people that they knew had MERS which meant 1 out of the 3 people who were sick enough to seek medical attention and sick enough that the doctors suspected MERS and had the patients tested and who tested positive. I'd bet that there were people out there who had caught the MERS virus and the doctors never knew because either they never got sick or they didn't get that sick.
Sure enough, about a week after the MERS-in-the-United-States story broke another MERS story appeared about someone who contracted MERS here, but didn't feel really sick from it ---------- exactly what I'd predicted. This person was discovered by tracing the contacts of a MERS patient and testing for MERS. If not for that contact no one would have suspected this other person had MERS. Concern was expressed that this person might have been a carrier who exposed others.
A couple of years ago I read the book Ah-Choo! The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold by Jennifer Ackerman. As someone with asthma, what is a simple cold to you can turn out to be months of being sick for me. So when I saw a science book about the common cold, I was extremely interested. The single most intriguing fact in the book was the fact that 25% of the time when you catch a cold you don't get sick at all. The only way they know that the cold was caught was by testing the blood for antibodies. At the beginning of the study the subject did not have the antibody for a particular cold virus, later when the blood was retested the antibody was present, but the subject never got sick. Although the book didn't mention it, it would seem normal to me that though the subjects didn't get sick that, like with a cold where you do have symptoms, there would be a period where the subject could expose other people to the cold s/he wasn't suffering from. In other words, they were carriers.
We give carriers a bad rap. Typhoid Mary anyone? We locked her up on an island for the rest of her life.
I think we ought to be celebrating carriers. Because these people have the answer. They caught a disease and either didn't get sick or, at worst, got mildly sick. And those diseases includes some that can kill.
As I walk through the microbiological soup that is the planet Earth, I know that's the solution I'm looking for ---- for my body to catch stuff but I don't even know I've caught it because I'm fine. Frankly, I don't freaking care how many diseases I "catch" in my lifetime if I never got sick from them. Would you? And carriers are people who did that. Somewhere in their bodies is the answer of how to do that.
So I think we ought to be studying the carriers. We should try to find out why it is their body can handle a disease that can debilitate or even kill someone else.
But we don't. In that book about colds, the studies were all about medicines to treat the cold. The studies weren't interested at all in the people who contracted the virus but didn't have the symptoms ---- those people wouldn't be spending any money on medicine. Just the over-the-counter segment of the cold medicine industry is a 2.9 billion dollar a year business here in the U.S.
The news story about the person who had MERS but only got a little sick from it, the concern was he might have been a carrier. There was no enthusiasm for here's this person who contracted this very serious, even fatal, disease and was barely affected by it.
From the documentary I saw about Typhoid Mary, the focus was always "Is Mary still carrying typhoid?" never "Why didn't Mary get sick from typhoid?"
Years ago I read a short story that had been written decades earlier. The story was about genetic engineering of humans. It was a utopian story where the Earth was a better place. Part of how this was accomplished was by making people healthier. And they made people healthier not by treating diseases, but by looking at the people who never caught the diseases. You know, the person who smokes 3 packs of cigarettes a day, but never gets lung cancer and lives to be 90. The person who eats candy, has bad oral hygiene, but never gets cavities. So in this story they looked at people who never got sick, found what it was about their bodies that did that and then genetically engineered everyone to have that same trait. I'm a little leery about the genetic engineering part because I don't think we understand our genetic code well enough to be messing with it. But I do think the approach was the correct approach. Find the people whose bodies don't get sick, figure out why and then figure out how to apply that to the rest of us.
So I say, "Celebrate the carriers!!!!" Because they may have the answers for us all.
For another medical topic where I think we're looking at things the wrong way read "Why Common Wisdom Is Wrong on the Origin of Phobias." There's also "Guns and Smoking."
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