There’s this guy I knew, Dan Brooks. Retired now, an eminent parasitologist and evolutionary biologist back in the day. He did a lot of work on emerging infectious diseases (EIDs, for you acronym fetishists) down in Latin America. A few years back I wrote some introductory text for an online database he was compiling. Part of it went like this:
You will find no public health advisories about Lyme Disease in Costa Rica. On the face of it, this is perfectly reasonable; Lyme Disease has never been reported there, and none of the local tick species is known to carry the bacterium that causes it.
Some of those ticks, however, are closely related to those in other regions which do carry that bacterium, and many pathogens are able to infect a far greater range of species than they actually occupy; simple isolation is the only thing that keeps them from reaching their true infectious potential. Thus, while Costa Rica is free of Lyme Disease at present, potential vectors already occur in abundance there. The infrastructure for an outbreak is already in place: a single asymptomatic tourist may be all it takes to loose this painful, debilitating disease on the local population.
Lyme disease is by no means unique. Climate change alters movement and home range for a myriad organisms. Our transport of people and goods carries countless pathogens around the globe. Isolated species come into sudden contact; parasites and diseases find themselves surrounded by naïve and vulnerable new hosts. And so maladies literally unknown only four or five decades ago — AIDS in humans, Ebola in humans and gorillas, West Nile virus and Avian Influenza in humans and birds, chytrid fungi in amphibians, distemper in sea lions — have today become almost commonplace. Pathogens encounter new hosts with no resistance and no time to evolve any. In such a world EIDs are inevitable. They are ongoing. A month scarcely passes without news of some freshly-discovered strain of influenza trading up to a human host.
This month, it’s Zika. Spread by the tropical mosquito Aedes aegypti, so we northern folks (so they assured us only last week) don’t have to worry. Hell, even 80% of the people who do get infected never show any symptoms. The other 20% have to suffer through joint pain, fever, a mild skin rash before Zika gets bored and wanders off to bother someone else. Ebola this ain’t; it’s never even killed anyone, as far as we know. I’m guessing that’s why no one’s bothered to develop a vaccine.
The things it does to fetuses, though. Now that’s pretty horrific, even if WHO is back-peddling and admitting that no one’s yet proven beyond a doubt that Zika causes microcephaly. (If it doesn’t, someone’s going to have to explain the fact that Brazilian cases of microcephaly shot up by a factor of twenty-five since Zika debuted there last year— from a long-term annual average of 150 cases to well over four thousand, and climbing. That’s a pretty stark coincidence.)
Even granting the argument that rampant Zikaphobia has resulted in the erroneous tagging of garden-variety small-headed babies— of a sample of 732 diagnoses, only 270 (37%) turned out to be truly microcephalic— we’re still talking a tenfold increase over historical levels. (And that may be conservative; it implicitly assumes that even though so many recent cases were misdiagnosed, none of the previous decades’ baseline cases were.) Claims that Zika wasn’t confirmed even in the majority of the verified cases aren’t especially reassuring given that tests for Zika in the hot zone are “very inefficient“— not to mention the fact that French Polynesia experienced a similar correlation between fetal CNS malformations and a Zika outbreak just the year before.
Back last week— when we were all being told that we had nothing to fear because A. aegypti never got out of the subtropics— the first thing that came to mind was Dan’s work on EIDs, and the ease with which certain microbes can swap hosts. “Sure, aegypti won’t make it this far,” I told the BUG, “but what if if Zika hitches a ride with Anopheles in the overlap zone?” It was, for a science fiction writer and worst-case scenarist, an embarrassing failure of imagination. Because Zika has in fact found some new Uber driver to hitch a ride with over the past few days, and it isn’t a mosquito.
It’s us. Zika has learned to cut out the middleman. It is now a sexually transmitted human disease.
And call me Pollyanna, but I can’t help nurture the outlandish-but-not-entirely-impossible dream that we might be looking at our own salvation. We might be looking at the salvation of the planet itself.
Because there’s no denying that pretty much every problem in the biosphere hails from a common cause. Climate change, pollution, habitat loss, the emptying of biodiversity from land sea and air, an extinction rate unparalleled since the last asteroid and the transformation of our homeworld into a planet of weeds— all our fault, of course. There are simply too many of us, and— being mammals— we just can’t stop breeding. Over seven billion of us already, and we still can’t keep it in our pants.
Of course, nothing lasts forever. My money was on some kind of self-induced die-off: a global pandemic that left corpses piled in the streets, or some societal collapse that reduced us to savagery on the third day and a relict population on the three hundredth. Maybe a holy nuclear war, if you’re into golden oldies. The problem with these scenarios— other than the fact that they involve the violent suffering and extermination of billions of sapient beings— is that we’d wreck the environment even more on our way out, leave behind a devastated wasteland where only cockroaches and stromatolites could flourish. The cure would be worse than the disease.
Many well-meaning folks have pointed out that birth rates decline as living standards improve; since so much of the world still lives in relative poverty, the obvious solution is to simply raise everyone’s quality of life to Norwegian levels. The obvious fly in that ointment is that your average first-worlder stamps a far bigger boot onto the face of the planet than some subsistence farmer in Burkina Faso no matter how many kids she might have. Mammals like me don’t need a brood of children to wreck the environment; we do it just fine with our cars and our imported groceries and our giant 4K TVs. Elevating 7.3 billion people to levels of North American gluttony does not strike me as a solution to anything other than fast-tracking the planet back to Scenario One.
But look at Zika. It doesn’t kill you, doesn’t even present symptoms in most cases. The worst you have to fear is a few aches and pains, a rash, a couple of sick days.
All it really does is stop you from breeding.
In a way it’s almost secondary, all this hemming and hawing about whether Zika causes birth defects or whether it’s just mysteriously correlated with them somehow. Fear hangs in the air, and the benefits are already starting to roll in. Just two days ago, WHO declared Zika a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern“. Brazil, Colombia, Jamaica, El Salvador and Venezuela have all publicly advised their citizens against getting pregnant— all the more remarkable for the fact that all but Jamaica are bastions of Catholicism, which normally champions the whole Biblical fill-the-earth-with-thy-numbers imperative. And now that this baby-monsterizing bug can be transmitted directly, human to human, through the very act of intercourse? Why, none of us are safe!
I look forward to a day when Zika— or at least, the fear of Zika— is everywhere. I look forward to a day when this benign baby-twisting bug inspires us to save ourselves, frightens us into necessary measures that mere foresight and intelligence could never inspire. There need be no societal collapse, no devastating pandemic or wretched nuclear winter. There need be no great die-off to save the planet. There need only be this additional cost, this danger, that makes you think twice before indulging your reproductive urges. In the space of a single generation, the numbers of this pest species could just… gently taper off. We could become sustainable again.
That is my dream. Of course, upon waking, I have to admit that now Zika is in the spotlight, the medical community will simply fall over itself in the race to find a cure. They will succeed. And we’ll be back where we started— albeit with some new proprietary and lucrative drug in hand, available only from Pfizer or Johnson & Johnson.
That’s the thing about being an optimist. You have dreams, and reality crushes them.
I could write an upbeat short story about it, at least. Too bad that none of those Shine-on Let’s do an SF anthology about positive futures! people have ever approached me, for some reason…