What's Eating You? | Year In Review | Chicago Reader

What's Eating You? 

The Year of Microbial Mayhem

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The end may be coming soon, and I'm not talking about Jesse Helms being in charge of foreign relations.

No, this was the year of the killer bug, the year when HIV was joined in the public consciousness by a whole menagerie of deadly viruses and bacteria. Some are just in from the rain forest, others are neighborhood fauna that have mutated beyond the power of antibiotics to control them. Here's a sampling of what we wished we hadn't learned in 1994:

In the book The Coming Plague, author Laurie Garrett predicts it's only a matter of time before a worldwide virus takes out a whopping big chunk of humanity. It's happened before. In 1918, Spanish influenza killed 25 million people worldwide in a scant six months.

Richard Preston's The Hot Zone, another 1994 book, introduced us to a charming virus called Marburg, which surfaced in Africa in the early 1980s. If this bug gets you your blood begins to clot. Everything--hands, feet, lungs, liver, kidneys--jams with clots. The connective tissue in your face dissolves, until your face seems to be detaching from your skull. You begin to liquefy. You open your mouth to scream but instead you vomit blood endlessly. In fact, blood begins to pour from every orifice.

Then there's Ebola, a virus so deadly that a 1976 outbreak in Zaire wiped out 90 percent of those infected. Ebola is another human liquefier; it chews up muscle and bone and sends blood gushing through your body so the whites of your eyes turn red and you retch black vomit before you die.

And let's not forget those flesh-eating bacteria. At least 15 people died in England this year in the bacterium's most serious outbreak, and it's also been on the loose in Chicago. A four-year-old girl lost part of her arm and leg, and a young man lost part of his stomach. Simple penicillin normally conquers the flesh-eater, which is a type of streptococcal infection. But this strain has mutated so far that only heavy doses of penicillin given intravenously seem to work. Catch this baby and it can eat an inch of skin per hour. The affected flesh turns red, green, and finally black until it dissolves and the bacterium begins eating into the underlying muscle. Flesh and muscle, by the way, don't grow back.

Officials at the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health revealed this year that more and more exotic viruses are winding up in research labs around the country. You say they're safe in the hands of professionals? The revelations came about only after a Yale University researcher was infected with the rare tropical virus Sabia. The butterfingered researcher broke a container of the stuff, sending flying particles into his eyes. He didn't bother telling anyone for 12 days. Judging from a very small number of recorded cases (three, to be exact), Sabia, discovered in Brazil in 1990, causes extremely high fevers and internal hemorrhaging. Intestines and lungs fill with blood and eventually burst. If that doesn't kill you, the dry-cleaning bill will.

The World Health Organization this year wrestled with the fate of the last few vials of the smallpox virus, held at the CDC in Atlanta and the Research Institute for Viral Preparation in Moscow. The virus was slated for destruction last December but got a one-year reprieve. Security at the Moscow Institute is, let's say, about as good as at those Russian nuclear reactors whose plutonium keeps showing up in Europe. There'll be a vote of the full WHO membership this coming May about whether to finally destroy the smallpox virus.

So happy new year. And don't worry about those resolutions--you may not need them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Shawn Belschwender.

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