April 14, 2005


There's no point in going through the detritus, flotsam and jetsam I've acquired over the years -- the notebook is long gone, the one in which I took notes of a fascinating lecture I wandered into by mistake about the efforts of a Florentine public health official to head off at the pass an outbreak of the plague in the 14th century. The lecturer (whose name I forget) made the point that contrary to popular belief, physicians did know some means of arresting the spread of the plague, but that the political will to implement them was lacking. It was a fascinating talk, one I wish I recalled better.

Of course, I'm remembering this in part because of the recent stories about deadly flu samples, and of course, the depressing chronology which suggests that we're about due for a deadly pandemic. Such thinking, of course, can be dangerous to one's health as well.

A while back, I picked up A Field Guide To Germs by Wayne Biddle, which is, as far as it goes, a delightful read. Biddle recounts something, in his section on influenza, that I remember well from my childhood:

Only once has a massive attempt been launched to head off an epidemic through general vaccination, namely the 1976 fiasco under President Gerald Ford against swine flu. Ford told the American people that the 1918-19 virus was on its way back and signed a law providing $135 million for an immunization campaign that would ultimately reach only about a quarter of the population. Along the way, the program attracted many prominent critics, including Ralph Nader and Albert Sabin, finally collapsing when cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare paralysis, appeared at ten times the normal rate among vaccinees. Happily, the flu epidemic never blossomed. Washington eventually paid out $93 million in damages, sending liability ripples through the courts that put a permanent crimp in the American pharmaceutical industry's enthusiasm for making any vaccines.

For some reason, I'm reminded of a Woody Allen joke, which goes something like: Before us are two paths. One leads to unimaginable suffering, anguish and despair. The other to total extinction. Let us hope we have the wisdom to choose the right path...

Posted by Ideofact at April 14, 2005 01:01 AM