Through the centuries, man's greatest threat often has not been natural disasters or warfare, but the microscopic creatures with which we share the earth. When epidemics break out, man has often been able to do little other than let the epidemics run their deadly course. Has the threat disappeared, or is it lurking in the background, waiting to strike again?
Saturday, Feb. 8, 1975, dawned cold and clear. Eleven-year-old Danny Gallant and his friend Dale trudged the foothills of the Sandia Mountains east of Albuquerque, New Mexico. A chilly wind pressed against the young boys’ faces, but the warmth of the sun soon took the bite out of it. The boys had no particular goal; they just wanted to explore. They were, however, armed with sheath knives against the unexpected. The unexpected insidiously appeared that crisp winter morning.
Dale saw it first. Half hidden in a pile of rocks was a coyote, rigid in death. The two boys, excited about their find, quickly decided to skin it for its hide. Afterward they trudged home, triumphant. Their families admired the skin they so proudly displayed. Perhaps because Danny’s mother wasn’t home, the hide found a place inside his house.
By Tuesday the excitement of the wilderness trek wore off, and for Danny an unpleasant sequel was just beginning. He complained of a bad headache and that he felt weak. On Wednesday he stayed home from school, shaking from chills and pain in his right shoulder. At 5 o’clock Thursday morning, Danny woke his mother to show her the egg-sized, excruciatingly painful swelling in his right armpit. His parents took him to a medical center. It took several days to verify the illness: Danny Gallant had bubonic plague!
Danny’s case was the first of the 1975 plague season. Matters got worse. It turned out to be the worst plague in half a century. Many wild animals perished from the disease, and each animal was a potential threat to domestic animals and humans.
Plague: still nearby, still deadly
Although the thought of bubonic plague seems extremely remote, it isn’t. A decade after Danny’s deadly encounter, plague-infected animals could be found in at least 40 percent of the continental United States, from the Pacific eastward into Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
The term plague comes from the Latin plaga, meaning “to blow,” or a blow at the hands of a god. The word is at once frightening, disheartening and-in today’s technological societies-so distant from modern thought that it almost defies the prospect of reality.
A long interval without epidemics brings complacency about the disease. Yet, depending on where you live, plague could be as close to you as the fleas on a rat’s back.
Humans contract the plague as they become involved in the rat-flea cycle, either by hunting and trapping animals that have become infected by plague-bearing fleas or by the spread of such fleas to rodent populations that live close to humans. The common black house rat, Rattus rattus, is highly susceptible to plague infection, but other small rodents and animals, such as field mice, gerbils, squirrels, marmots, guinea pigs, hamsters and prairie dogs, can also be affected.
Humans can be bitten by an infected flea, which disgorges the deadly plague bacilli into the skin as it feasts on the host’s blood. The most effective transmitter of the bacillus is the oriental rat flea, which is thought to be the main link in plague outbreaks among humans down through history.
What are the prospects of a future plague, bubonic or otherwise? Some scientists think we are dangerously close to unknown plagues, against which HIV and AIDS could be viewed as minor forerunners of future epidemics. Occasional news reports detail how and why science is starting to lose ground in skirmishes against infectious diseases.
We face threats, not just from earlier killers like bubonic plague, but new and yet-unknown potential microbial catastrophes. In modern societies where food is plentiful and wars are nonexistent, stories about epidemics rarely interrupt social apathy. However, some epidemiologists think we have set the stage for the next epidemic. Even in the midst of modern medical advancements, how will we deal with future microbial juggernauts?
Plague in history
History records three great pandemics, (worldwide epidemics) in the past 2,500 years. Each ravished nearly the whole of the inhabited world. The first lasted for 200 years, the second for 400 and the third more than 100 years.
The first began in the 15th year of the reign of Roman emperor Justinian I (ca. A.D. 542). It apparently first broke out in the Egyptian port of Pelusium, then spread to Byzantium (now Istanbul), probably aboard grain ships from Egypt.
The Byzantine historian Procopius records the deadly march of the disease: “From [Egypt] it spread over the whole world, always moving forward and travelling at times favourable to it. For it seemed to move by fixed arrangement, and to tarry for a specified time in each country, casting its blight slightingly upon none, but spreading in either direction right out to the ends of the world, as if fearing lest some corner of the earth might escape it. For it left neither island nor cave nor mountain ridge which had human inhabitants ...” (“Procopius,” translated by H.B. Dewing, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Vol. 1, Book II, XXII-XXIII).
Historian Edward Gibbon wrote in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88): “I only find that, during three months, five and at length ten thousand persons died each day at Constantinople (Istanbul)” (Henry T. Coates & Co., Philadelphia, 1845, Vol. 3, p. 641).
For more than 50 years the plague infected much of Western Europe.
A chronicle written during Justinian’s time describes how the uncontrollable outbreak “depopulated towns, turned the country into a desert and made the habitations of men to become the haunts of wild beasts” (ibid.).
It took another century for the plague to disappear. It did not reappear for 600 years. This is plague’s typical pattern. It “erupts with pandemic intensity, scourges humanity for years or centuries, and then disappears as mysteriously as it comes” (ibid.). It passes through a populace, largely annihilating it. Then, as conditions change for the better and it runs out of hosts to infect, it disappears as quickly as it had spread.
The plague reappeared in the East and West in the 14th century. This pandemic is the one best known in history. It apparently originated in the East, in China, and marched relentlessly westward. The plague reached Europe in 1348, beginning in the ports of Sicily and mainland Italy. From there it moved inland to other cities. By June it had entered Paris. Its citizens lived in terror for months.
Philip VI ordered his best physicians to discover the source of the pestilence. Their conclusion? The plague had occurred because of the conjunction of Saturn, Mars and Jupiter. They then prescribed ways to avoid the disease: Eat poultry, fatty meats and olive oil. No one should sleep past dawn, baths were dangerous and sexual intercourse fatal (Charles T. Gregg, Plague: An Ancient Disease in the Twentieth Century, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1985, p. 12).
Regardless, Parisians continued to die. As the decades passed, the black death-another name that usually refers to bubonic plague-spread its deadly fingers up the Rhine and Moselle valleys and finally arrived in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and England, where centuries later it finally played itself out.
In England the lovely summer of 1665 brought the plague. Instantly the wealthy retreated to the country. Even the president of the College of Physicians fled, and by late June the school was without a faculty. The Royal Society suspended its meetings, and the inns were empty.
But not all professionals left the city. Physician Nathaniel Hodges bravely remained in London to do his duty. He recorded the frustrating battle: “Many patients were lost when they were thought in a safe recovery; and when we thought the conquest quite obtained, death ran away with the victory; whereas others got over it, who were quite given up for lost, much to the disreputation of our art” (Gregg, p. 14)
Some 100,000 Londoners died. To this day, the old London graveyards are a mute testimony to these tragic years.
Outbreaks of plague continued for more than a century in Malta, Marseilles, Moscow and Vienna. The plague gradually withdrew from whence it came: to the East.
Some 400 years had passed. Nearly one third of Europe’s population had died of the disease. During these four centuries the plague sporadically reappeared every 17 to 25 years, usually in urban centers where rats were numerous. It concluded its devastation of Europe in Marseilles in 1720. But history shows us that the plague only went underground.
The third pandemic
A myopic complacency again set in. A report from a select committee of the British House of Commons in June 1819 reads: “The Plague is a disease communicable by contact only ... It appears from some of the evidence that the extension and virulence of the disease is considerably modified by atmospheric influences; and a doubt has prevailed whether, under any circumstances, the disease could be received and propagated in the climate of Britain” (Gregg, p. 16, emphasis added).
The committee admitted that some evidence existed that the disease had been “received and propagated” in years past, but doubted it could do so again.
Curiously, the third pandemic, beginning in the 1850s and ending in 1959, remains virtually unknown to most people. It began in the two ancient flashpoints of plague, Africa and Asia. However, this pandemic created a third region that permanently harbors the plague: the Western United States.
This third outbreak brought epidemics in San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Pensacola, several Texas ports and other coastal cities around the world. In recent years cases of chronic infections have been reported in Texas, California, Massachusetts, Nebraska and North Carolina. In all but one of these cases, the infection began in New Mexico (Gregg, p. 16).
The third pandemic spanned more than 100 years. While the Great Plague of London (in the second pandemic) took 100,000 lives in six months, the third pandemic killed that many in a few weeks and continued monthly, and yearly, until more than 13 million were dead (Gregg, p. 17). In India alone more than 11 million perished. During the Vietnam War of the 1960s and 1970s, more than 10,000 died of the plague. Transoceanic shipping was the principal transporter of the disease.
Eventually plague again played itself out, but not before demonstrating the world’s vulnerability to this and other microscopic killers.
Will history repeat itself?
Could such devastating outbreaks of the disease rear their ugly heads again? It is a frightening possibility, even in our modern world. Plague can be as near as the next-door neighbor or, with the miracle of modern travel, only hours or a day’s journey from virtually anywhere.
Gregg focuses our attention on the continuing presence of the roots of the plague: “Plague is a willing handmaiden to famine and war; these threaten us still, perhaps more than ever. The plague bacillus and its hosts [rodents] show increasing resistance to antibiotics and pesticides. This raises the specter of our most potent weapons [modern medical scientific discoveries] splintering in our hands at that moment when they are most needed” (Gregg, p. 17).
Laurie Garrett, who won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the Ebola virus, wrote a bestseller on new diseases. In her recent book about the emergence of diseases such as Legionnaires’ disease, AIDS, the Muerto Canyon microbe, the Rwandan cholera outbreak and others, she refers to such opportunistic infections as ecological paybacks for our modern behavior, flawed technology and the destruction of the rain forests. Her conclusions cry out for our attention.
Garrett’s bestseller is titled The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance (Penguin Books, New York, 1995). Dr. David Baltimore, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, says of her conclusions: “... Nature continually throws [challenges] at human civilization in the form of infectious diseases. Like earthquakes and hurricanes, the devastating diseases that periodically emerge ... remind us how thin is the veneer that separates our high-tech society from personal and communal disaster.”
Most people assume that medical science will shield us from disasters such as those in previous centuries. Garrett’s book is a call to awaken from such complacency, to realize that we are much more vulnerable than we suppose. The horrendous precipitators to pandemics are reported every day in the news: the deadly, inexorable march from war to famine to pestilence. And, if war is not a first cause, then earthquakes and drought can do the job quite effectively. Man himself, just through interference with and alteration of nature, can also provide the first cause.
Laurie Garrett, in describing the deadly Machupo virus, shows how easily our best intentions can bring disaster on our own heads. This story began in Bolivia in 1962.
Two U.S. officials, Karl Johnson and Ron MacKenzie, were asked to help investigate an epidemic sweeping the eastern part of Bolivia. The men flew to the remote region, where they encountered the epidemic firsthand. The first dozen patients they saw were writhing in pain and vomiting blood.
With the assistance of researchers in the United States, they established a field laboratory in the village of San Joaquin. Their first order of business was to determine whether the deadly microbe was a bacterium, virus or parasite.
After conducting an autopsy on a youthful victim of the epidemic, they determined that the mysterious disease was caused by a virus. The virus caused a devastating hemorrhaging throughout the body. Johnson and MacKenzie were elated to make this discovery and celebrated with champagne. Their joy didn’t last long.
Shortly after, both men began to feel ill. To their shock, they had contracted the malady. They both made it to a hospital in Panama, where a U.S. Army doctor was flown in from Washington to try to save their lives. Although he hadn’t treated this specific ailment, he was proficient in treating another viral hemorrhagic disease called Seoul hantaan, which American soldiers had contracted in the Korean War. Military doctors had discovered that the patients’ chances for recovery improved when they were carefully administered electrolytes and fluids.
Physicians understood that hemorrhagic diseases depleted the body of fluids and proteins, which could damage vital organs beyond repair and prohibit the immune system from mounting an effective attack against the deadly virus. Without help from the immune system, the patient would either convulse or go into shock. Under the Army doctor’s careful administration of electrolytes and fluids, both men recovered.
Johnson and MacKenzie survived and returned to their dangerous fieldwork in Bolivia, not knowing whether their devastating encounter had made them immune to the deadly microbe.
It wasn’t long until they isolated the mysterious virus, which they found in the blood, spleens or brains of five mice. They called it Machupo, after the local river. But how could they find the mode of transmission? With painstaking patience and experimentations, the scientists discovered the Machupo virus was transmitted through the urine of mice. The transmission sequence from mice to humans was at once incredible and simple.
Johnson traced back the most likely explanation for how the Machupo virus had spread. The epidemic’s roots lay in Bolivia’s revolution of 1952, when the people of San Joaquin suddenly found themselves without an employer and a steady source of food supplies. Realizing they needed to grow grains for their survival, they hastily chopped down jungle areas along the Machupo River to grow corn. Unknowingly, they had disrupted the natural habitat of the Calomys field mouse, now providing the mice a new and plentiful food source: corn. The mouse population grew rapidly and soon invaded San Joaquin.
During the plague of hemorrhagic fever, mice could be found throughout the town’s grain storehouses. While feeding on the grain, the mice also urinated on the food supplies, spreading the virus.
The virus was then ingested by humans as they ate the grain. It could also be inhaled or enter through cuts in the skin. From those points of entry, the Machupo virus was lethal to its human hosts.
How did the mouse population grow so large in the villages? MacKenzie noticed the remarkable lack of cats. He learned that, a few years earlier, in a well-meaning health measure, Bolivia had initiated a massive DDT-spraying campaign to eliminate malaria. However, the spraying also poisoned thousands of cats. As the cats died off, the mouse population rose. A well-intentioned government program inadvertently contributed to a deadly plague. Sometimes well-meaning mankind can be its own worst enemy.
Garrett’s analyses of other recent outbreaks of deadly diseases-Marburg virus, yellow fever, lassa fever, Ebola, swine flu, Legionnaires’ disease and others-show that some have been actually precipitated by human actions.
“Even in modern times there is still much that we do not know about the causes, spread, and decline of many epidemic diseases. Powerful new methods of treatment have sometimes complicated the picture by stimulating the development of resistant microorganisms. Unexplainable appearances of new or mutated strains can burst unexpectedly on an unsuspecting population. Man can even, unfortunately, create an epidemic where none existed before” (Geoffrey Marks and William K. Beatty, Epidemics, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1976, pp. xi-xii).
Words of scientific wisdom
In 1989 an impressive group of American scientists, at a three-day conference, discussed how disease-causing microbes were not at all defeated, but were posing ever-greater threats to mankind.
At that meeting University of Chicago historian William McNeill outlined why humanity has been vulnerable to plague over the millennia. His studied belief was that such catastrophic epidemics were a result of humanity’s steps forward. “As humans improve their lots, McNeill warned, they actually increase their vulnerability to disease ... It is worth keeping in mind that the more we win, the more we drive infections to the margins of human experience, the more we clear a path for possible catastrophic infections. We’ll never escape the limits of the ecosystem. We are caught in the food chain, whether we like it or not, eating and being eaten” (Garrett, p. 6).
How great a threat do such microscopic killers pose for humankind? “The current vogue is that they’re not as much of a large-scale, Andromeda Strain-type threat as some people have suggested. And they could be right. Maybe nothing’s going to happen. But there is something terrifying about the fact that nothing can stop the implacable evolution of these viruses as they test, through mindless mutation, ever more strategies to facilitate their survival, a survival that just may represent disease and death for us humans. Maybe no deadly pandemic will occur. But I wouldn’t want to bet my life on it” (C.J. Peters, M.D., and Mark Olshaker, Virus Hunter: Thirty Years of Battling Hot Viruses Around the World, Anchor Books, Doubleday, New York, 1997, p. 323).
Peters and Olshaker also pose the sobering question: “What happens if a deadly virus for which we have no treatment or cure explodes into the middle of a major city?” (ibid., p. 1).
Of course, the further we are from the last great plague the closer we are to the next one.
We would do well to heed these authors’ and scientists’ words of wisdom. And, more important, there is a much higher source who speaks authoritatively of the certainty of future epidemics. Scripture tells us to “hear Him!” (Matthew 17:5).
Why Christ must intervene
Contrary to the evolutionary theory, God says He made man (Genesis 1:26-27). Since He states this without equivocation, we would do well to listen to Him-especially in relation to human catastrophes. It is also wise to heed human beings who know the ingredients of plague and how it affects us.
Bluntly put, God reveals through Scripture that humanity, through the greed and selfishness that drive most human behavior, is hell-bent on a course, if left unchecked, that will eventually destroy human life.
However, God is determined to save, deliver and restore mankind and to build a different human society. But before He does that we must suffer some severe trials. Sadly, this is the record of history. We never seems to learn from our tragic mistakes.
Since man has chosen to learn lessons of life the hard way-and not allow God to guide him-God will allow humans to bring themselves to the very brink of annihilation before He intervenes. In our state of selfishness and lust for power, we will collectively come to the point of destroying ourselves.
Jesus Christ Himself made this clear and tells us why He must intervene and return to earth: to prevent human extinction. He speaks of that time: “It will be a time of great distress, such as there has never been before since the beginning of the world, and will never be again. If that time of troubles were not cut short, no living thing could survive; but for the sake of God’s chosen it will be cut short” (Matthew 24:21-22, Revised English Bible, emphasis added throughout). Left to his own devices, mankind would certainly destroy himself from the face of the earth.
Jesus Christ speaks of our end-time period as one of unprecedented tyranny, terror, war, famine and epidemics: “The nations were angry, and Your wrath has come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that You should reward Your servants the prophets and the saints, and those who fear Your name, small and great, and should destroy those who destroy the earth” (Revelation 11:18). Christ will return to earth to judge those who would foolishly and selfishly destroy the earth and its inhabitants.
If Jesus Christ were to wait to save man from himself, to allow man to try to find his own answers to his own insurmountable problems, He would be too late. Mankind would be extinguished from earth. Christ must return to save man from himself.
Dire prophetic warnings
Although the book of Revelation was recorded by the apostle John, its true author is none other than Jesus Christ (Revelation 1:1-2). Christ makes predictions about human nature and its inevitable consequences.
Man’s history can be read as a chronicle of wars. From time immemorial he has wanted-and still wants-to control human beings by force. What usually follows on the heels of war? The disruption created by warfare leads to famines, which are followed in turn by disease epidemics. We see this sequence revealed in Christ’s prophecies.
In vision John saw four horses and riders that represented future events. The rider of the second horse, which was “fiery red,” had power “to take peace from the earth, and that people should kill one another; and there was given to him a great sword” (Revelation 6:4). This vision represents war.
This horseman is followed prophetically by a black horse and rider, carrying scales, that depicts famine (verses 5-6).
They are followed by a pale horse. “And the name of him who sat on it was Death, and Hades followed with him. And power was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, with hunger, with death, and by the beasts of the earth” (verse 8). We learn from this prophecy that a fourth of mankind-well over a billion humans, based on earth’s current population-will die from warfare, starvation and disease. Other prophecies in the same book indicate the toll will be much higher.
Jesus Christ described this same sequence of disasters when He talked to His disciples of the conditions leading up to His return: “And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars ... For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places” (Matthew 24:6-7).
The results of disobedience
But why will these things happen? It all boils down to the inevitable results of man defying his Creator. God warned His people Israel: “But if you will not listen to me and carry out all these commands, and if you reject my decrees and abhor my laws and fail to carry out all my commands and so violate my covenant, then I will do this to you: I will bring upon you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and drain away your life ... And I will bring the sword upon you to avenge the breaking of the covenant. When you withdraw into your cities, I will send a plague among you ...” (Leviticus 26:14-16, 25, New International Version).
God repeats His warnings in Deuteronomy 28: “The LORD will strike you with consumption, with fever, with inflammation, with severe burning fever, with the sword, with scorching, and with mildew; they shall pursue you until you perish” (verse 22). “The LORD will strike you with the boils of Egypt, with tumors, with the scab, and with the itch, from which you cannot be healed” (verse 27).
What mankind cannot seem to understand is that God made man for a great purpose. Man is His greatest creation. As such, God has the sole right to tell us how to live. God, in His Word, gives us a blueprint for how we should live on His earth. Sadly, few have ever listened.
Could man really be his own worst problem? God says he is, telling us that “there is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Proverbs 14:12).
He also informs us: “The sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so” (Romans 8:7, NIV).
How, then, can human beings get right with God and avoid such catastrophes?
The key to divine safety
Overall, the Bible is a book that proclaims wonderful and exciting news. In fact, that’s why The Good News is the title of this magazine. There is a need to put this horrible news-these tragic diseases, past, present and future-into some type of proper perspective.
First, how can Christians withstand such terrible crises?
Avoiding such tragedies begins with humility. The person who humbles himself or herself before God can enjoy supernatural protection. The ultimate antidote to plague isn’t found in some new strain of antibiotic but in turning to God and honoring Him. “But on this one will I look: On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at My word” (Isaiah 66:2).
God also says of those “who feared the LORD” that He will “spare them as a man spares his own son who serves him” (Malachi 3:16-17).
According to the Word of God, the world is destined to face epidemics that will lay waste many nations. However, you can escape that time of great tribulation, a terrible time unparalleled in human history (Matthew 24:21). Almighty God and His Son, Jesus Christ, are the ultimate solution and antidote to war, drought, famine and plague. They show the way to life through Their holy words, the Bible. Hear them! GN