Of Microbes, Illness & Us

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RAJGOPAL NIDAMBOOR

A host of new, strikingly powerful and resurgent diseases have been expanding around us with alarming intensity. This ‘pandemic’ of epidemics not only signals a disaster in the history of the human species, but also mutual adaptation that we share and/or carry with our microbial fellow travellers. Despite everything, we have got only to blame ourselves for this unpleasant reality. We have brought ‘evil’ through the door by affecting, and upsetting, the basic fabric of our environment, changing our behaviour and our “creativity” to increasing the length and quality of our lives. Hence, the big question. Where have we really gone wrong?

Research suggests that with every new disease known to us, there are a dozen others waiting to explode like the ticking time-bomb. What’s more, the wheels of biological change have kept us running more rapidly than we can manage or handle. Yes, the shared evolution of human beings and microbes, not to speak of other offending organisms, has now reached the acme. Much has been written, for instance, about malaria, but far less about other new scourges, such as dengue, or swine flu. So, when we look at scientific and historical research it all looks disjointed, like pieces of crushed mosaic assembled in bits and patches.

You and I have been slow to understand that we live in a new, cascading bio-cultural age. The reason is simple — for decades, we’d cherished the myth that infectious diseases were a waning actuality. This was wrong — a position born of inherent optimism. We are now shockingly awakened by the ghost of new emerging viruses and microbial resistance to drugs. We are also not adequately responding to challenges that are closely linked to our health and survival. To cull one example — for over 10,000 years, infections have killed more people than all wars and famine put together.

As most of us would know, parasitism and disease are a natural part of life. They are fundamental to the existence of everything — from the earliest, simplest organisms to human beings. The fact, however, remains that you and I have swelled new epidemics by our travel and technology, our diet, clothing etc., Apart from new diseases, the old dangers, for example, tuberculosis and gastroenteritis, have returned with transformed vengeance.

Most diseases, as history would tell us, occurred in increased numbers when our ancestors left the trees for the ground. Or, when our nomads became hunters and spread around the world. Or, when village life began, along with the growth of cities, the beginning of global travel, the Industrial Revolution, aside from social and technological outcomes of prosperity. This is not all. We are now forced to cope with new food-borne diseases too — illnesses that are appearing everywhere, some of them being fatal.

The scenario is gloomy and complex, but not unfeasible. There’s hope too, in spite of the ongoing misuse of our ecosystem, not to speak of the dramatic changes in the biosphere. Remember, our ancestors had to deal with new diseases; so did our Stone Age forebears. So did the first farmers and the first city dwellers. Despite struggles and crises, they were able to survive the challenges. We will prevail too, because our immune system and imagination are marvels of adaptability.

Well, the big question and also the big hazard is — we are in the midst of a habitual era of calamity packed with new pathogens. They, like us, are trying to adapt and survive. The only way out is — we must conquer some of the more deadly forms quickly and also deal with others just as effectively.

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