Finding the Perfect Disease: 20 facts and thoughts on human diseases

mustard in field

I spent more than 5 hours reading about infectious diseases yesterday because syphilis just might not be the disease I need for my novel.  Or it might not be the only one my character has.  I was looking for the following qualities: urgent symptoms, curable, fatal if not cured in time.  The problem with syphilis is that in the first two phases (when it’s still treatable) the symptoms tend to be so mild that people often don’t even know they’re really sick.  Each phase also has the potential to last from a few weeks to years and years.  So there’s no urgency for fictitious purposes.  For people like me, who are slightly possibly a little bit prone to catastrophizing absolutely every physical pang or headache into a brain tumor, doing medical research can be dangerous.  The thing is, I find medical research irresistible.  My curiosity is insatiable.  I want to know ALL THE BAD CREEPY STUFF THAT CAN HAPPEN TO HUMAN BEINGS!!!

Here are some things I learned yesterday

1.  Typhoid Mary was a real person named Mary who spread typhoid to a ton of people because she was a carrier that didn’t ever get sick and was also a cook who didn’t believe in washing her hands.

2.  Only 1 in 10 people infected with tuberculosis ever have an active infection.  It is believed that 1/3 of the world’s population is infected with M. Tuberculosis.  That’s 1 in 3 people who have latent tuberculosis.  Could YOU be harboring the bacteria in your tissue?*

3.  If you read about a lot of diseases and their symptoms it becomes impossible not to see that the job doctors have of diagnosing is a lot more complicated than people in distress will ever admit.  You think it should be obvious to people with really extensive and expensive educations but the symptoms of HIV are a lot like the symptoms of TB which are a lot like the symptoms of syphilis.  So don’t be an asshole to doctors because they don’t know EVERYTHING.

4.  Smallpox was a badass health villain.  I mean – it is a nasty nasty virus.  I knew it was a nasty virus but I didn’t realize what a pandemic it was and the word “vaccination” was coined because of the improved inoculation against smallpox that came about by a doctor discovering that cows get a smallpox humans can’t get but that introducing the cow’s smallpox virus to humans would protect against the human smallpox virus with a high rate of immunity.  The root of the word “vaccination” is cow.  I never knew that.

5.  Smallpox vaccinations were made mandatory in many developed countries and it was because of this that smallpox was eradicated and all vaccination programs for it were deemed no longer necessary by 1976 with the US being the last to discontinue it.  When you think of vaccinations being evil – you just read the statistics on rate of the smallpox vaccination killing patients compared to the rate at which smallpox kills people who aren’t vaccinated.  If you still think they’re evil then I think you haven’t read enough about smallpox and how likely it is to kill everyone you know.

6.  I saw pictures of people infected with smallpox.  They should show these pictures to people in school when learning about plagues that have killed off large populations of people.  It really hits home.  This is no little “rash” as I always thought.  It’s gnarly.  I mean, you don’t have any regular skin left while infected.  I was shocked and also – no “rash” looks like that that I’ve ever seen before.

7.  Pandemics aren’t funny and they aren’t a government conspiracy and vaccines against them are one the most significant contributions scientists have made to human health.

8.  It’s incredible what a difference just washing our hands after going to the bathroom can make on keeping disease from spreading.  Such a simple thing.  So easy.  Soap, it does us all good!  No need for antibacterial soaps either.  Just plain soap and water.  Do it today.

9.  Humans are disgusting.

10.  I like to claim that I’m not germaphobic but this is not strictly true as reading about STD’s and other infectious diseases reminds me.  I don’t think mouths and genitals should ever get together.  I know it’s like the ultimate in sexual pleasure for many people but the thought of how many mouths and genitals are mixing it up all over the world makes me so uncomfortable that the thought makes me pretty sick and makes me want to come back as a cockroach.

11.  I also don’t think mouths should be doing a lot of other things they do.

12.  I have now told you something very private about myself and I’m going to have to kill you to keep you quiet.

13.  Humans are worse than ticks and mosquitoes with regards to spreading disease.

14.  If the Black Plague is going to kill you it’s going to do it within 4 days.

15.  If you think getting TB in these modern days is no big deal, you’re a fool.  If you’re prone to anxiety and fear of diseases like I am, don’t read about why it’s still a really bad-ass problem for humans with a respectable fatality rate.

16.  Sex is really dangerous.

17.  Scarlet fever seems like a mere cold compared to smallpox.

18.  The Chinese were recorded inoculating against smallpox as early as the 10th century.  Though inoculation techniques may have been used by Egyptians as early as 1000BC by making a powder of the dried scabs of smallpox sores to be snorted.  Yum.  How’s THAT for natural medicine?!

19.  Nature has some pretty fierce moves.

20.  Maybe these anti-vaccine and anti-modern medicine people have the right of it.  Maybe it IS better if half or all of the human population is killed off by smallpox and the Bubonic Plague and Tuberculosis and Typhoid.  I’m not a real fan of humans and nature has very distinct ways of controlling overpopulation amongst animals which includes starvation, disease, and fights over territory resulting in culling down of packs and cutting off defeated males from access to females.  Tell me this hasn’t been happening with humans for thousands of years now?  Unlike other animals we’re too stupid to scale back our reproduction activities

This cheerful post is brought to you by RESEARCH and EDUCATION.

*As you have probably already guessed, the bacteria is not spread evenly throughout the world’s population.  In the United States the number of people infected are much lower than in Asian and African populations.


  1. Ann says:

    Poor Typhoid Mary! The official health people knew about her and tried to get her to take other jobs besides being a cook. Cooking paid better than laundress or other jobs, so Mary would always return to that job. Then, people would start dying. Eventually, they had to imprison her to keep her from killing people by working around food. Yes, they actually imprisoned her. More wonderful facts about human beings!

  2. angelina says:

    I read all that same stuff yesterday – totally fascinating! She refused to believe that she was carrying the disease because she wasn’t sick and also didn’t believe that washing her hands was important. I had to remind myself that back then it was still news to a lot of people that washing hands was such a vital way to prevent disease and illness.

  3. Lonnie says:

    As you’re contemplating diseases, I’ve just gotten good news – my latest scans were analyzed this week and everything was described as “normal,” not just as “no evidence of disease.” Three cheers for modern medicine! Cancer is nasty. My father died in 2007 and I remember talking with him about a program (NOVA?) on Mary Mallon so I’m fairly sure the program was aired several years before then – my grandfather died of typhoid in 1920 which is why we talked about it. Good luck finding the “perfect disease.”

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