Viruses are fascinating creatures. And where today’s Ebola outbreak is concerned, fascination morphs into concern, fear, even panic. My employment over the years as a clinical laboratory scientist, of necessity, required handling, processing, and examining cultures for all sorts of entities invisible to the naked eye. Microorganisms may be small but they pack a wallop and a cavalier attitude prompted by routine handling of “yet another specimen” can be disastrous. Ebola commands respect but there are other equally devastating communicable diseases that can add an element of adventure, danger, and intrigue to your writing. During the early days of this nation, diseases were mysterious phenomena and its victims were often considered to have been targeted because of moral weakness or outright consorting with the devil. Superstition held that disease was a way God (or the gods) meted out justice on offending citizens — or their progeny.
Here are some things to consider about viruses:
- There are twenty-one viral entities currently plaguing the human race causing diseases like encephalitis, yellow fever, polio, rabies, mumps and measles – to name some of the more notorious.
- During the American Revolutionary War, smallpox caused more colonial deaths than the British did. Of course, it was an equal opportunity killer, wreaking havoc on native Americans as well.
- For centuries past, outbreaks of viral epidemics prompted creation of quarantines, crude inoculations of pus from infected to healthy populations, as well as outright panicked flight to avoid contact with those infected. Sound familiar?
- In colonial times, there was “the Pox” (smallpox) distinguished from “the Great Pox” (syphilis), another big problem caused by a Spirochete – but that’s another story for some other day. Other common illnesses included dysentery, scurvy, plague, and cholera.
- Smallpox posed a thorny dilemma for George Washington at Valley Forge. Should he authorize inoculation of the troops? If he did and an epidemic evolved, his army would be incapacitated while the British Army, exposed for centuries and therefore immune to the disease, would overrun the beleaguered revolutionary patriots.
So the more things change, the more they stay the same. Today we continue to fight the battle of people dying of what was described in 1777 as “…some disease, the Itch, Pox, Fever, or Flux.”
However, as Rahm Emanuel pointed out, a crises for some is an opportunity for others. So we writers can use infestation, infection, vulnerability rampant in the natural environment to enhance the urgency and danger of the dilemmas we create for our protagonists. What could be more intriguing?