We Americans are very fortunate that most of the bacteria and viruses once deadly to humans are now preventable or curable in our hospitals.
Generations of doctors contributed hard work and brilliant discoveries to get our medicine to this point. However, what if our society was suddenly faced with a new threat. Well, not new but infections so old we’ve never seen anything like them?
A recent disaster proved it is possible. One 12-year-old boy in Siberia just died of a 75-year old pathogen. Twenty other people had to be rushed to a hospital, via BBC.
Ice is the culprit. Almost a century ago, a reindeer, which was infected with anthrax, died and froze in the tundra.
The body became part of the permafrost, as is normal. Permafrost is the layer of ice in the Arctic that never melts.
Except the ice did melt in the summer of 2016. As the ice around the reindeer became water, the anthrax was released into the atmosphere.
Reindeer still lived in the area and passed by to eat. Roughly 2,000 of them were infected with the anthrax, which then infected the boy and his community.
It gets worse. Epidemics have resulted from permafrost melts before. Once, in 1890, people in Siberia were exposed to smallpox that had been frozen in corpses on the Kolyma River.
It was 120 years since the original people died of smallpox, yet the disease came back to wipe out 40 percent of one town.
Researchers believe that melting permafrost can let loose even worse infections from the ice.
An evolutionary biologist from Aix-Marseille University, Jean-Michel Claverie, explains, “Permafrost is a very good preserver of microbes and viruses because it is cold, there is no oxygen, and it is dark.”
Potentially, the worst infections from human history may return to haunt us. For example, the Spanish flu would be a particularly worrying disease for modern humans to re-encounter.
We still aren’t sure quite what specific virus the flu was. We would have to identify the virus and hope we could create a vaccine or a treatment quickly.
Those steps all take time. It could be years before any of us have access to vaccines or treatment for these diseases. You know what that means — prepare to quarantine yourself and escape heavily populated areas.
Don’t assume there will be anything in your cupboards to effectively treat a potential new infection. These viruses or bacteria could be even older than recorded history.
In 2005, NASA found a 32,000-year-old bacterium. It was frozen in a pond in Alaska.
Next, the scientists found bacteria that lived eight million years ago. This was in Antarctica. Once they melted it down, the ancient bacteria sprung to life.
Fortunately, it didn’t affect humans, but someday a virus could escape the cold grip of the Arctic and cause a pandemic. Thankfully, we have time to get prepared for it now.