Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Viral Staircase

Published originally in 1995 in Columbus Alive! newspaper. This was the first article I wrote professionally and the first to be nationally syndicated.

Headlines scream the end of the world: Flesh-eating bacteria. Salmonella poisoning from homemade ice cream, raw eggs, cheese and undercooked meat.

Diseases once conquered are reappearing. They are resistant to the antibiotics and drugs created to protect us and our families.

In every headline is a germ of truth. Hundreds of thousands are dying. They are the very old, the very young, the sick, and the frail, those already grappling with other diseases and a growing population of millions whose immune systems are faltering. These are the ones who've always died from plague, pox and disease since the beginning of time.

We conquered tuberculosis, plague, smallpox, and childhood diseases-we thought.  Why are they coming back?

Cleanliness may be next to godliness but it can also lead to extinction, it appears. Cleanliness and the use of antibiotics and vaccines have combined possibly to change the course of human evolution.

We have massacred hundreds of billions of microbes, viruses and bacteria with antibiotics. A fever remained, evolved and came back in concentrated forms, creating a new, mutant, antibiotic-resistant monster refusing to succumb to our best efforts and obsession with cleanliness. Like Victor Frankenstein we created a creature bent on destruction.

Dr. Calvin Kunin, professor of medicine at the Ohio State University, compares the emergency of drug-resistant microbes to Darwinian evolution-survival of the fittest. "We are seeing accelerated evolution before our eyes," said Kunin, who is chairman of the Infectious Disease Society of America's committee on antibiotics.

Throughout our lives we encounter bacteria and viruses on virtually everything we touch, taste and smell. Most are harmless. They help tip off our immune systems  to potential danger, responding by marking and attacking invaders.

Bacteria have their benefits. "They manufacture nutrients-biotin, pantothenic acid, pyridoxine, vitamin B12-stimulate the immune system to recognize threatening microbes, and stake out a territory that might otherwise be occupied by pathogenic [disease-causing] organisms," says holly Ahem, a microbiologist at the State University of New York at Albany.

Ricki Lewis, science writer, in September 1992s's FDA Consumer, explained that "[Microbes are] found in predictable places where bends in the body create warm, moist pockets, and where the body is exposed to the outside. [They] inhabit our armpits and groins, our eyes and ears, the entrances to our respiratory tracts, and the exits from our urinary tracts ... [and] our colons. ...From between our fingers to between our toes, many microbes call the healthy human body home."

We are host to trillions of bacteria. At birth we pick up hitchhiking bacteria in the birth canal. Lewis tells how "within 12 hours, several species [of bacterial life] are present in the intestinal tract, transferred from the mother, from food, and from the baby's fist to his mouth."

Although not necessarily dangerous, the teeming microscopic life forms help to stimulate the baby's immune system.

Immunologist suspect a parent's instinctive kissing and nuzzling introduce bacteria that serve to kick the body's natural defenses into high gear. Without that initial introduction our bodies would be unable to fight against the simplest infections and we would die-or be confined to a plastic, germ-free bubble.

The bugs normally within us are kept from multiplying to infective levels. "These organisms are confined to an area that is theoretically outside the body (because they exit directly to the outside)," says Charles Schable, chief to he Diagnostic Serology Section, division HIV/AIDS at the national Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia.

Before Lister pioneered sanitary, hygienic conditions in hospitals and operating theaters, before Pasteur created his rabies vaccine, before modern science created antibiotics and changed the world, humans adapted to virulent diseases alone.

According to historians, in the past plagues efficiently controlled population growth, without respect to money, influence, position, or power. They treat all equally, cutting the frail and weak from the human herd, leaving only the strong to survive and pass their enhanced immune systems on to their children.

Christopher Columbus carried smallpox across the Atlantic Ocean to unsuspecting natives, where the population couldn't fight off plagues and childhood diseases commonplace to Europeans who had adapted over time and were largely resistant. Adventuring European sailors seeking wealth and spreading death mingled freely with the natives, unmindful of their recent illnesses, and sowed the seeds of destruction.

Each European incursion brought religion, confining clothing and more disease. The natives had no resistance to the new diseases and millions succumbed before their immune systems could fight back.

In the Pacific, centuries later, the guileless Polynesians welcomed near- extinction with open arms. Measles, an inconvenient childhood illness in the Old World ravaged the islands of the New World. The islanders were unprepared. They had no immunological resistance to their visits' average diseases. Missionaries wrote in reports and diaries how Polynesians threw themselves into the surf to cool their fevers, jumped off cliffs onto the rocks, and hung themselves to relieve their suffering, leaving a mere one-third of the original population to carry on.

Since those first dire days, Indians and Polynesians have built up immunities to those catastrophic illnesses. They have adapted. Their bodies now contain minute traces of the bacteria that drove them to the verge of extinction, according to  the immunologists and biologists at the CDC. Future generations have been endowed with the ruin of the past.

In the early 20th century a new twist on conquering disease occurred with the discovery of antibiotics. No longer satisfied with vaccinations of weakened strains of infectious diseases, we set our sights on total annihilation.

Medicine forced nature to retaliate and preserve the status quo. Undaunted, scientists looked for other avenues and have found a potential answer among cockroaches, generally considered one of the lowest forms of life.

Dr. Richard Karp, University of Cincinnati professor of biological sciences explains, "When you're dealing with roaches, which can live up to four years, what really gets extended is its adult life. A roach is more like a higher animal that wants a little quality of life during its long adult phase."

To combat incursions of insects and bacteria in the past, we salted, pickled, dried and froze our food before cooking. Now we eat fresher, centrally processed produce and meats that contain hardier strains of Salmonella and E. coli, in addition to insect infestations.

Eggs sunny-side up, raw eggs, undercooked and barely cooked eggs once stirred out palates; now they prompt our digestion to revolt. Cheese, teeming with bacterial colonies, veined and aged to perfection, graced our tables with color and rich flavor; now they color our insides with infection. Homemade ice cream, hand cranked on the back porch on lazy summer evenings, a treat anticipated and cheered is now barely tasted. Even salad bars with their bright display of color and texture, must beviewed with concern; you never know who has touched it or how clean they were.

Not so many years ago, before the Food and Drug Administration raised its standards, higher contents of rodent hairs, droppings and filth found their way into our processed foods. FDA inspectors tell how English and European exports are required to scrutinize food sent to America with stricter standards than those reserved for their own consumers.

Just a century ago, most food was grown at home or purchased from local farmers. It was hastily washed and processed and few people felt any ill effects. Then scientists, government officials and doctors tampered with the prevailing conditions in the name of better health, all to help us live longer. Manufacturers followed suit by convincing consumers that cleaning their homes, food, utensils and bodies wasn't enough. We must sanitize, purify, deodorize and disinfect everything. Pictures of teeming microscopic germs are 9% exterminated before their eyes.

Madison Avenue cranks out billions of dollars worth of ads to promote continued health and safety from germs. Not satisfied with using the same dishcloth or sponge or dish mop over and over again, products are used once and thrown away. Terry cloth towels hanging in the kitchen or bathroom are thrown out in favor of sanitary disposable towels. Cloths are sanitized, not just washed.

The national Centers for Disease Control reports that "From 1976 through 1991, the proportion of reported Salmonella isolates in the United States that were SE [Salmonella enteritidis, which causes severe, bloody diarrhea] increased from 5 percent to 20 percent...and to 21 percent for the first half of 1993."  All from food prepared in our homes.

Authors Marguerite Neill, Michael Osterholm and David Swerdlow reported in the July 1994 issue of Patient Care magazine, "Centralized processing of food increases the potential for widespread contamination...[and m]any consumers are not experienced in the proper handling and preparation of food...more of their meals are prepared by other who may be careless."

To combat the fear of contamination, corporations manufacture antibacterial sprays, lotions and powders for kitchen counters, appliances and food preparer hygiene. Hands are purified with antibacterial soap. Pani-inducing tabloids and national newspaper headlines report our homes are no longer safe until they're sterilized and germ-free.

Where will it all end? Can we live germ-free forever?

The Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) from 1991 to the present has documented cases of viruses jumping from apes, horses and dogs to humans and causing severe illness and death. A new strain of pneumonia or localized infection of soft tissues has been documented as transferring from horse to human, and an illness  similar to Rocky Mountain spotted fever has jumped over from man's best friend, according to JAMA.

HIV, AIDS, and other previously unknown diseases such as Ebola fever, which is more than 97% fatal, baffle medical science. There is no cure. Killer viruses and bacteria, unfazed by antiseptic conditions, adapt faster than they can be documented, classified, studied, decontaminated and killed.

From Africa, birthplace of the AIDS virus, come whispering reports of prostitutes, and a scattering of anonymous people, resistant to infection - without the intervention of science or medicine. They are adapting - alone - in the questionable cleanliness of the Dark Continent's rural communities.


Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Review: The Host by Stephenie Meyer

I am not a fan of sparkly vampires, but I am a fan of books and giving second chances. Any writer can turn out a good book, even after some pretty bad books, or in spite of them. With this in mind, I approached The Host with no expectations, other than wanting to read a good science fiction novel.

The first thing I noticed from reading the synopsis of The Host was that it was very similar to Robert A. Heinlein's The Puppetmasters. Alien race uses humans as hosts and lives and acts through the host body. I have to say up front, Heinlein did it better.

Although Meyer does set up an interesting premise of the parasite--in this case the silver beings that name themselves souls, or centipedes as the humans call them--being unable to completely eradicate the host personality and bonding sufficiently to turn rebel to her own species. The Wanderer is a female, though she has had more hosts than any other of her species, and capable of birthing a thousand of her kind, something she fears to do because it will mean her final death. No more hosts, only a thousand offspring born from the individual cells of the Wanderer's body, essentially tearing her apart. That is something to be feared, not like the more transient pain of a human giving birth.

Meyer describes the souls in their natural form as beautiful silver ribbons with hundreds of tendrils implanted at the base of the human brain where the tendrils, or tentacles, connect with the spinal cord and brain, using 278 connections, more than in any other species the souls have taken over among all the worlds they have colonized. Nothing like scary and beautiful in the same breath.

Because the Wanderer is having trouble quieting her host's voice and mind, she seeks help in order to figure out why and fix the problem. Unfortunately, a Seeker, the enforcers of the souls, is onto Wanderer and tells her that either Wanderer gets the information about the rebels the host Melanie is part of or the Seeker will be implanted into Melanie's brain and the Wanderer will get a new, more tractable, less difficult host. That sends Wanderer on a drive from San Diego where she is an honorary history professor (history of the souls and her own hosts) to Tucson where Wanderer expects to get help.

Along the way, Melanie recognizes one of the landmarks that leads to a rebel sanctuary and off Wanderer and Melanie go into the Arizona desert. Nearly dead, they are found by the rebels, taken hostage, and held in the lava tubes of a vast underground system Melanie's Uncle Jed has fashioned into a sanctuary for himself and 35 other rebels.

Most of The Host is about how the rebels react to the parasite and how Wanderer and Melanie interact and become a part of the community.

Once again, Meyer has created a protagonist that is weak and emotionally frail, a victim that does not show any real grit or determination until nearly the end of the book. The first two-thirds of the novel is slow and tedious without much action. Despite there being thirty-seven rebels purportedly in the caves, barely half of them are never heard or seen. One or two characters pops in and out and there is very little connection to Wanderer or Melanie except as props for the change in sentiment. All the characters are Meyer's stock in trade -- either irritating or whiny, ineffective females and stereotypical male characters chosen from the usual suspects: strong and silent, strong and obnoxious, irascible with a good heart, weepy and ill, and just plain invisible until someone needs to die or be killed to move things along.

The Host doesn't really get interesting and moving until the last third of the story when time is running out and much needs to be done before Meyer can write the end. There are moments when Wanderer and Melanie and her brother Jamie move out of the mundane plod, but too few to hold the story together. I had hopes in the beginning that Melanie would be a force to be reckoned with, but trapped in her own head by Wanderer, that did not happen. There is nothing like an alien genetically incapable of violence giving up an Eden of plenty and happiness to be a pathetic pawn who finally finds the strength to determine her own fate in the last few pages of a 600-page novel.

While the elements of a real page-turner are there, Meyer fails to put them together. The beginning of the novel is like slogging through thick mud until the last third when the pace picks up and the stakes are high. I usually read novels of this length in a couple of days, especially good novels that I promise myself I will read just one more chapter -- and one more -- and one more until I am finished. Not so with The Host, which took me nearly two weeks to get through the bulk of novel before I became engaged sufficiently to keep turning the pages. I will not even go into the usual tirade of poor writing and poorer editing that abound in the book.

Suffice it to say, that The Host is a moderately successful novel in the last third of the novel. The rest is a poor warmup for what could have and should have been really good science fiction. Best I can give The Host by Stephenie Meyer is 3 out of 5, and that's only because of the last third of the book when it really took off.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

No Shoe Polish

I didn’t really want to date. Divorced less than a year raising three children alone, I didn’t have the time and certainly wasn’t ready, but I let my girlfriends talk me into going out on my birthday and that’s when the fun began. I knew there was a reason I didn’t like dating. It was the men.


“It’s your turn to get the drinks, birthday girl.” Debbie nudged Connie. “That guy over there has been watching you all night.”

I rolled my eyes, asked what they wanted and headed to the bar. A hairy-chested guy in a powder blue suit with his Saturday Night Fever shiny polyester shirt open to his navel and sporting almost as many necklaces as Mr. T attempted what I’m sure he thought was a smile. I ordered the drinks and waited, trying not to notice the stench of Mr. Saturday Night Fever’s cologne. “How ‘bout I get those for you,” he wheezed in my ear. Must be his idea of sexy, but it wasn’t mine.

 “Thank you, but I can manage.” I picked up the drinks and headed back to my friends while they made faces at me and pointed. I knew he was there; I felt his hot breath on my neck. I should have worn my hair down.

 As I set down the drinks and stepped back, I bumped into him. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I didn’t know anyone was there.” His hand was warm on my elbow.

 “Look,” he said, “I’m sorry for acting like a jerk. I didn’t know how to get your attention.”

 “It worked.” I managed a weak smile. He wasn’t bad looking if you ignored the long Elvis sideburns and concentrated on his thick, curly black hair. Outside of the hideous clothes and the overwhelming amount of gold he wore, he might be a nice guy.

 “Would you like to dance?”

 My girlfriends huddled together and nodded, giggling and urging me to say yes. I was outnumbered and it was only one dance. “Okay.” He took my hand and led me to the dance floor just as a slow song started.

 When he pulled me close, I fought the urge to sneeze. I finally recognized the cologne he bathed in; it was Polo. It smelled better in the bottle. I was fine as long as I held my breath, at least until I passed out. He pulled me closer and pressed his cheek against mine. He was a good dancer, but I was uncomfortable. I fought the urge to sneeze and needing to breathe, as the black spots in front of me grew bigger. I stepped on his foot, pulled away, and turned my head to take another deep breath when, suddenly, the song was over. I thanked him for the dance.

 “See you tomorrow at work,” he said as he kissed my cheek and left.

 I looked at my friends, but they looked everywhere but at me. “What’s going on?”

 Darlene shifted in her seat as if she had ants in her pants. “Didn’t you recognize him?”

 “No. Who is he?”

 “You should take a break once in a while, look around, pay attention to the cleaning staff.”

 “Shelby cleans our office.”

 “Carlos is her boss.”

 “Some friends you are.”

 They hadn’t set me up, but Carlos was in the break room when they discussed how to get me to agree to go out on my birthday. He’d noticed me. Since I seldom got up from my desk, he didn’t know how to get close enough to ask me out. He’d suggested meeting us at the Blarney Stone and they agreed. “You need to get out more. Go on a date.”

 “I don’t want to date.”

 “You’re too young to close up shop,” Debbie said. Darlene and Connie agreed. “He’s not so bad. Owns a cleaning company.”

 “He’s single,” Connie said.

 “Well, he’s not so bad once you get past the gold and the polyester and the cologne. Not bad at all, as long as I don’t breathe.” I smiled and my friends laughed. “There is that,” they chorused.

 “But before you do anything else,” Connie said, “maybe you should check your lipstick.” She offered me her compact and pointed to her right cheek.

 There were black specks like coal dust down the side of my right cheek where Carlos’s cheek touched mine. “His face didn’t look dirty.”

 “Not his face, his sideburns,” Darlene said. “It’s shoe polish.”


 “To hide the gray.”

 Just my luck. “What’s next, a safety pin to hold his zipper closed?” We all laughed.

 The next night at work, I bumped into Carlos in the lobby. He wore a gray polyester suit with a plain white shirt and red silk tie. He smelled of soap and fresh air. “I forgot to wish you a happy birthday.” He held out a small box wrapped in silver and gold. His smile transformed him into something approaching a nice guy, all the bravado and attitude gone.

 I opened the package. It was a small leather bound copy of “Pride and Prejudice” with gilded edges.

 “I noticed you like her books.”

 “Thank you, but I can’t accept this.”

 “It’s bad luck to refuse a birthday gift. Please take it.”

 “Thanks.” A blush warmed my cheeks.

 “Would you like to go out to dinner this weekend?”

 “I have to work.”

 “You have to eat. Let me buy you dinner.”

 I said yes and before the month was out we had dinner together three times. One night, when it was too cold to walk across the parking lot to the diner, he brought a picnic basket full of food he’d made. As I got up to go back to work, Carlos touched my arm. “Would you like to go to a movie this weekend? We can take your kids.”

 I had so little time with the boys as it was and I didn’t think they were ready to see me with someone other than their father. Carlos was a nice guy with a chivalrous heart. “I can’t promise anything, but I’ll talk to my boys and give you an answer tomorrow.”

  “No gold chains, no safety pins, no cologne.” Carlos grinned. “And no shoe polish. I promise.”

 My cheeks got hot. “How…?”

 He winked and pointed to my three friends peeking through the window in the break room door.

 Carlos wasn’t perfect, but he had a generous soul and I suddenly realized I wanted to get to know him better. I guess I wanted to date after all.