22 August 2018

The return of the fifth plague visited upon the Egyptians

For most of us, anthrax evokes fearful memories of white powder in envelopes. The disease, however, is an ancient one. God’s fifth plague upon the Egyptians — ‘‘Behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thy cattle which is in the field, upon the horses, upon the asses, upon the camels, upon the oxen, and upon the sheep: there shall be a very grievous murrain,” Moses told Pharaoh — may well have been an anthrax outbreak. The same goes for Apollo’s bane upon the Greeks at the beginning of the Iliad. (Homer dubbed the disease “the burning wind of plague.”) Perhaps the most striking description from antiquity of what we now know as Bacillus anthracis comes from Virgil’s Georgics:
Nor was the manner of dying a simple matter: 
After the thirsty slake-seeking fever had gone 
All through the veins and withered the pitiful limbs, 
Then a fluid welled up in the suffering body, and 
Piece by piece absorbed the melting bones. 
B. anthracis is a cruel organism. In their passive form, the bacteria live as hard, oval-shaped spores with thick, nearly indestructible walls that allow them to survive for decades. When the spores colonize a victim’s bloodstream, they enter a vegetative state, dissolving their walls and gathering into neat chains that Robert Koch, the nineteenth-century German scientist whose pioneering work helped identify the disease, described as “graceful, artificially ordered strings of pearls.” In order to survive, the bacteria must kill the host and reproduce inside it before escaping back into the world and returning to a resting state.

Anthrax bacteria produce two lethal toxins in tandem, akin to those that cause tetanus and cholera. The process tends to be swift, and the chances of fatality high. The early symptoms resemble those of the common flu: your head begins to ache; your temperature rises; a general sense of weakness envelops your body; your stomach starts rumbling; you begin to cough incessantly. Then things get serious: you may go into seizures; your organs begin failing; boils break out across your skin, swelling red pustules with a trademark black center. In the fifth century bc, Hippocrates dubbed the disease anthrakes, from the ancient Greek for “charcoal.” 

The disease has triumphed once the blood begins spilling from your orifices. When the medical examiners or the veterinarians cut you open, they will find that your blood has gone black, and that certain organs, particularly the spleen, have turned into masses of melting flesh.
Now the melting of the Siberian permafrost is unleashing anthrax bacilli that have been frozen there for centuries.  Vast herds of reindeer are being decimated and a way of life destroyed for native subarctic peoples.  Details in a longread at Harper's Magazine.

1 comment:

  1. tremendously sad. and a bitter harbinger, perhaps, of further ills to come from global warming.


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