throwback thursday

1971-2 ~ Barbara, 9th grade

Adolescent angst captured in a sketch by my art teacher, whose name I have long forgotten… Still sorting through the boxes of stuff from my parents and grandparents…

Do you have any memories of the 1968 flu pandemic?

I have finished reading a book on the 1918 flu pandemic and was surprised to learn that there have been two flu pandemics since 1918 and both of them were in my lifetime. The 1918 flu was caused by the H1N1 virus. Another pandemic in 1957, the year I was born, was caused by the H2N2 virus. And in 1968, what we called the Hong Kong flu at the time, H3N2, happened when I was 11 years old.

The 1968 pandemic killed an estimated one to four million people worldwide. I had no idea! We haven’t got to one million deaths from COVID-19 yet, though it seems likely we will soon. Did my parents protect me from this news as it was happening? They weren’t shielding me from news about the Vietnam War…

It was the “Hong Kong” flu, though, because that’s what everyone was saying we had. For Christmas vacation in 1968 we (parents, sister and I) drove from Connecticut to Florida, picking up a couple of widowed aunts along the way, to spend the holidays with another aunt and uncle at their mobile home in Fort Myers, Florida. (I think some more relatives might have been staying in nearby motels. Not sure that all of us could have slept in a two bedroom mobile home.) But that is where and when we all came down with it.

All of us, except one, a 26-year-old cousin who kept harping on the “fact” that he wasn’t sick because he took lots of vitamin C. My sickbed was an air mattress in the living room so I wasn’t spared his endless crowing and the groaning, moaning, miserable grown-ups telling him over and over again to shut up. And that is my only memory of that Christmas and that pandemic.

I wonder how terrified I might have been had I known so many were dying.

Tomorrow we break out of our bubble to get our yearly flu shots. It seems worth the risk. Instead of wandering into CVS and waiting around, we had to make appointments and have been instructed to wait in the car until we are called in for our turns. Feeling jittery.

outbreak

“Cleaning Corpses During an Epidemic” by Fyodor Bronnikov

The other day I finished reading a riveting book, Spillover: Animal Infections & The Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen. A terrifying account of the recent history of disease scientists investigating bizarre and unheard of new diseases of animal origins, a thriller written by a gifted storyteller. Quammen explained the science so well in layman’s terms. This is one of those rare books I couldn’t put down. The fact that it was published eight years before our current worldwide coronavirus pandemic, a fair warning, makes it all the more pertinent.

Spillover is the process by which pathogens, hiding in wild animal reservoirs (also in factory farmed animals), travel into and infect the human population. But near the end of the book, after discussing the plagues of gyspy moths, which come and go, Quammen introduced the concept of outbreaks. We had a memorable outbreak of gypsy moths here in Connecticut in the 1980s so I could easily grasp the concept.

Ecologists have a label for such an event. They call it an outbreak.

This use of the word is more general than what’s meant by an outbreak of disease. You could think of disease outbreaks as a subset. Outbreak in the broader sense applies to any vast, sudden population increase by a single species. Such outbreaks occur among certain animals but not among others. Lemmings undergo outbreaks; river otters don’t. Some kinds of grasshopper do, some kinds of mouse, some kinds of starfish, whereas other kinds of grasshopper, mouse, and starfish do not. An outbreak of woodpeckers is unlikely. An outbreak of wolverines, unlikely. The insect order Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) contains some notable outbreakers — not just tent caterpillars of several kinds but also gypsy moths, tussock moths, larch budmoths, and others.

We are prodigious, we are unprecedented. We are phenomenal. No other primate has ever weighed upon the planet to anything like this degree. In ecological terms, we are almost paradoxical: large-bodied and long-lived but grotesquely abundant. We are an outbreak.

And here’s the thing about outbreaks: They end. In some cases they end after many years, in other cases they end rather soon. In some cases they end gradually, in other cases they end with a crash. In certain cases, even, they end and recur and end again, as though following a regular schedule.

What could account for such sudden and recurrent collapses? One possible factor is infectious disease. It turns out that viruses, in particular, play that role among outbreak populations of forest insects.

~ David Quammen
(Spillover: Animal Infections & The Next Human Pandemic)

Chills have been running up and down my spine ever since I read the excerpts quoted above. We are an outbreak on this earth. Our population explosion can be fairly compared to an infestation of gyspy moths. Provocative thought, I know. But it’s humbling and sobering to appreciate that we are part the cycles of nature and while we like to think we can control our environment to some degree, when all is said and done, we know so little about the forces shaping our existence here on this little blue planet.

We now have 114 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in our town. Our county (New London) has 1,276 confirmed cases. Of those 7 are still in the hospital and 102 have lost their lives. Hospitalizations are way down here, which is encouraging, but we are still staying home due to our health risks. Please stay safe!

science is uncertainty

a man wearing a mask in 1918
image credit: Western Neighborhoods Project/OpenSFHistory

We all want answers today, and science is not going to give them. Science is uncertainty. And the pace of uncertainty reduction in science is way slower than the pace of a pandemic.
~ Brian Nosek
(The Washington Post, May 26, 2020)

I’ve been thinking about scientists a lot lately, beacuse of the pandemic, so when I read the above quote in the newspaper about “the pace of uncertainty reduction in science” it caught my attention. I remember my father teaching me that whenever science finds an “answer” it only brings more questions into focus. The more scientists learn, the more they appreciate how much they still don’t know.

Experiment, observe and gather data. Make educated guesses and investigate some more. My father spent his entire research career studying chicken viruses. It’s kind of astonishing that there could be so much to learn about just one kind of virus. Years and years of probing and analysis.

My father at work at the University of Connecticut,
sometime in the 1960s
~ photo by Thommie White, my grandmother

As far as I can tell, the scientists studying the coronavirus pandemic have been very candid about what they still don’t know. Yet, their best guess is that wearing a mask makes sense because it will likely protect other people from you if you happen to have the virus (with no symptoms) and are spreading it without realizing it. Combined with social distancing and frequent hand-washing, this is our best strategy for slowing down the spread of COVID-19 for now. Rest assured scientists are still searching for answers, hoping to reduce the uncertainty as soon as humanly possible!

varicella zoster virus

electron micrograph of a varicella virus ~ Public Health Image Library, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention

When our daughter Larisa was seven weeks old her two older brothers, ages 3 and 5, came down with chicken pox. This was before a vaccine for the disease was available. Not to worry, said their pediatrician. Because I was breast-feeding her my own immunity would protect her. But, a couple of days later, a few poxes appeared on her tiny little body.

The pediatrician examined her and scratched his head. He had never seen a case like this before. He said he couldn’t know for sure if this mild case of chicken pox would offer her immunity in the future. Years later, when Larisa was pregnant with Katherine, she was tested and did have chicken pox antibodies, removing any lingering uncertainty about her immunity.

But the story wasn’t over! Yesterday we got a phone call from Larisa who had just been to the doctor and had been diagnosed with shingles! Of all things! As far as I knew most people who get shingles are over 60 but she’s still in her 30s. And almost 8 months pregnant. But the doctor assures her that shingles poses no danger to the baby, even though chicken pox and shingles are caused by the same virus. (Chicken pox would have been dangerous.) Which tells me that they must have seen cases like hers before.

I haven’t posted in a while because first, I was very cranky about the relentless heat and humidity waves, and then, we were very busy with preparing for and traveling to Kentucky for our niece’s wedding and the family reunion immediately following. And now we’re getting ready to go down to North Carolina to help out. But I do have much to write about and hope to do so soon.

The good news is that autumn weather has finally arrived here and my mood is much improved!!! 🙂

helping hand

RenoufHelpingHand
“The Helping Hand” by Émile Renouf

The first time I ever saw a print of this painting was at an estate sale, not long after my father died on September 19th in 2013. The expression on the man’s face reminded me of my father and the little girl reminded me of myself so I bought it. It’s not in the greatest condition and the coloring is way off. Perhaps the coloring on this digital copy is off, too. Some day I may replace it with a better copy.

He’s been gone for three years now and I still miss him, my favorite teacher. Papa taught me how to wash my hair, how to cross the street, how to trust my own instincts, how to treat animals, how to be compassionate and kind, how to swim, how to ice skate, how to paddle a canoe, how to chop an onion, how to look up words in a dictionary, how to do research, how to enjoy bird-watching, how to garden, how to walk (and play) in the woods — the list goes on. I think of him every time I do any of those things.

It’s almost autumn and I will be eating as many Macoun apples as I can while the season lasts. They were his favorites. He often told me the following story when I was growing up. (It first appeared almost 6 years ago on my blog!)

When my father was a boy growing up on a New England farm during the Great Depression, his family picked as many apples as they could and stored some of them in a barrel in the root cellar. Of course he ate as many as he could while picking them, but his parents had a rule about the ones in the barrel he found exasperating. If anyone wanted an apple later in the fall or winter, he was required to take one that was the least fresh. By the time they got to the fresher ones they had also become much less fresh! So all winter he was having to make do with eating not-so-great apples. If only he had known he might have called on Iduna to keep the apples fresher longer!
~ Barbara Rodgers
(Iduna: Keeper of Apples)

But perhaps I miss him the most whenever I hear a story on the news about a threat from a new virus or other infectious agent. Dad was a microbiologist and was utterly fascinated with microorganisms — viruses, bacteria, spirochetes, amoebas, fungi, parasites. He would never tire of explaining things about them to me and correcting any misinformation the media might be passing along to his fellow citizens. And I never tired of listening. I find myself wondering what he would have had to say about the Zika virus. It’s not easy finding someone so interested in this subject!

I didn’t notice it at first, but my father died on his older brother’s birthday. Jon Stephen was born on September 19th in 1909 in Ukraine. My father, Theodore William, never knew his older brother because Jon died of a ruptured appendix on March 15th in 1919 in New York, when he was only 9 years old. Papa was born three years later on March 13th in 1922. A little bit of synchronicity there I think.

Still missing you, my dear old Papa!