Genocide by Mumps

I’ve been thinking of an amusing plot idea, possibly for a pseudo-apocalyptic thriller of the sort that I wouldn’t ever be likely to write.  I’ll give you a little background information to set the stage, and if any of you ever want to use it, please be my guest.  (It would be nice if you’d let me know, so that I can keep my eyes out for the story, but it’s by no means required.)

We’re all reasonably familiar with the disease The Mumps, caused by a viral infection, and much rarer for people to get in the modern, developed world thanks to vaccination.  What some people don’t know is that, in addition to causing inflammation of the parotid glands, leading to the familiar, puffy-cheeked look of its sufferers, it can also, on occasion, cause orchiitis – an inflammation of the testicles.  In some victims, this can lead to decreased fertility and even to full-fledged sterility.

Now, what if some “mad scientist” – perhaps an eco-terrorist – carefully selected for just those strains of the virus most frequently causing orchiitis, then genetically engineered that to engender peak virulence, increased transmissibility, and so on, before releasing it into the general population?  The goal would be a form of preemptive population control, a genocide that wouldn’t require the murder of already-living people (except, of course, for that small percentage of Mumps sufferers who do die from even the ordinary illness).

One could write a story about the discovery of such a plot and the brave and dangerous attempt to head it off, or about living in a world that had already succumbed to its effects, a la “The Stand.”  The specifics, of course, would be up to the individual writer, but it could be a good story.  One (amusing?) side-effect (or benefit, depending upon one’s point of view) would be that, in the West, at least, anti-vaccers would disproportionately fall victim to the nefarious plot.

This, however, is not a good enough reason for those readers who are scientifically inclined and have the resources to choose actually to carry out such a plot in real life.  No indeed!  I would never endorse such a dreadful course of action, no matter how darkly amusing the side-effects would be, or how beneficial it might be to the beleaguered other species of plants and animals on the Earth.

(Wink, wink)

I’m kidding.  I honestly would NOT want to see such a thing happen.  I do have children, and I hope they have long, rewarding lives in a healthy world that’s achieved peace and prosperity without the mass-sterilization of the human population, if such a thing is possible.  Still, I would like to read a story about it, and it’s not my kind of story to write, so to my fellow authors a out there:  Have at it, if you’re interested.  I eagerly await any fruits of your labors.

And, to any of the other sort, as I said above:  I already HAVE kids.

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Walk Like A Caveman

There are many levels of irony about living in our modern, Western civilization.  One of the most striking, to me, is the fact that we find ourselves thinking that we have to “make time” for exercise.

Our ancestors–almost all of them–were never faced with this kind of problem, any more than are the millions of other species of animals living in the world.  Exercise is not a special task or chore for most creatures, it is part of the process of staying alive and being healthy.  Really, that’s what it should be for us as well.  We know that our bodies want to be used, they thrive with that use and become stronger and healthier, in general, the more active we are.  Yet, the progress of our civilization has, curiously, led us to alienate ourselves more and more from our natural, active natures.

Many of our modern conveniences were created to spare us from the “horrors” of physical labor.  Automobiles, escalators, elevators, tractors…these things are all, of course, truly remarkable and incredibly useful, but because we have them, we’ve gotten into the habit of relying solely upon them.  After only a little bit of time doing this, we realized that our sedentary, machine-driven lifestyles were often leading us to be terribly unhealthy.  Its not so much that our lives have been shortened…modern infection control, including vaccines, antisepsis, antibiotics and health codes have led us all to survive and even become unaware of the simple ailments that killed most of our forebears.  Our lives have instead been diminished, not in quantity but in quality.  It is wonderful to be able to drive hundreds of miles to see a distant relative at a moment’s notice.  It is NOT wonderful to have to drive to the corner store because we’re too out of shape to walk there.

In recent years we’ve learned that astronauts who spend very much time in space, without the need to fight gravity, rapidly lose bone density and muscle mass, and their hearts weaken as well.  To combat this tendency they have to use very clever means to engage their bodies and to keep those organs fit.  Yet we here on the ground, deep within Earth’s gravity well and not going through free-fall, often might as well be floating in orbit, for all the work we give our bodies.

Awareness of this issue has led to a huge industry of gyms, exercise equipment, supplements and how-to books about exercise.  We strive to fit time to go to the gym into our busy, modern schedules.  There’s nothing wrong with that, of course…I’m all for the gym.  But you don’t have to have a membership at the expensive local health club, nor even any special equipment, to keep your body as healthy as you can.  All you have to do is live just a little bit more like your ancestors did.

So, if you have to go to the store, and it’s not that far away…walk there instead of driving.  Obviously this won’t work if you have to buy a great many groceries at one time…but maybe multiple trips with smaller hauls spread throughout your week would be a better idea for your health, anyway.

If your local store isn’t QUITE local enough to walk to, well, then drive there.  Then, instead of jockeying around for the very closest spot you can find, park at the far end of the parking lot, and walk to the store from there.  It may not seem like very much, but if that’s so, then it also shouldn’t be very much trouble.

When you’re going into a building and need to go somewhere other than the first floor, why not take the stairs?  Walking up stairs is terrific, low-impact aerobic exercise and it keeps your quads nice and strong!  Okay, if you live in New York City and need to get to the 50th floor, walking ALL the way might be impractical unless you’re a marathoner with a lot of time on your hands.  Yet, even so, you can take the elevator up to two or three floors shy of your destination and walk the rest of the way.  Then you can do the same thing on the way down, which will, after all, be quite a bit easier than going up.

Also, if you live in a good enough climate, at least part of the year…ride a bike to work sometimes instead of driving.  This won’t be great if you have a sixty mile commute each way (again, unless you’re a distance athlete and have a rather flexible schedule), but if your commute is more reasonable, then biking is a great alternative.  It saves you gas money (a big deal in our current economic climate), and it produces less carbon dioxide than does an internal combustion engine…though it DOES produce some, since that’s one waste product our bodies produce just as our machines do.

All these simple measures can keep your body healthier and keep you feeling stronger.  They will probably also make you a bit thinner and shapelier, which is nice.  Still, feeling and being healthy is far more important than being thin…as any famine victim would gladly tell you if they had the chance.

In closing, the key to being physically fit and active in the modern world–and to feeling more alive and vigorous and strong–doesn’t have to involve expensive gym memberships, aerobic classes, treadmills and weight machines.  All those things are great, and I have nothing but praise for those who discipline themselves to make their bodies as healthy as possible.  Yet, even for those without the money and/or the time for the more advanced techniques, sometimes just letting go of a few modern conveniences can make you a little more like your robust ancestors…without the worrisome threat of infection and dangerous predators with which they had to contend!

The Treatment Trap

In America today, we rely far too much on pills and on procedures–on would-be “cures” for our problems–than we really should.

It may seem strange for a medical doctor like me to be saying this, but I have insight into the issue from multiple perspectives.  I’ve been one of the doctors who falls into the trap of trying to “treat” every issue rather than prevent or solve it, and I’ve been a patient who approaches things the same way.

The irony is that a great many of the health problems we face in the modern world–especially the most rampant and devastating ones, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and their related problems and consequences–are governable simply by modifying our lifestyles.  Indeed, for many of us, these health concerns’ very existence AS problems is only CAUSED by our modern lifestyles.  I’ve already discussed in some earlier entries the mechanisms and effects of type 2 diabetes, a disorder which is becoming more and more endemic in our nation, and at younger and younger ages.  It’s absolutely clear why this is happening:  We are more sedentary and more overweight and we eat more rapidly absorbed carbohydrates than humans have ever done before in our existence.  What’s more, thanks to public health interventions and control of infectious diseases, we live long enough for these habits to matter more than they could have in the past.  We also know, quite well, many of the things that we can do to counter diabetes and its close relatives, hypertension and heart disease. Yet, instead, we allow our health to deteriorate and then rush to modern medicine to seek “cures” or at least treatments for the outcomes of our bad habits.

I suspect that this trap of habits was set for us, to some degree, by the brilliant innovation and success of antibiotics.  These are the quintessential medical cures:  When used against an infection caused by a sensitive bacteria, antibiotics actually CURE the problem (with the help of our own immune system).  To some degree anti-virals do the same, though they are more recent, and anti-parasitic agents are also analogous.

Unfortunately, most other kinds of medicines–unless you count the occasional Tylenol or Motrin to treat a tension headache or muscle soreness–don’t actually cure anything.  They simply “treat” it, governing the symptoms and consequences to some degree or other, but not addressing whatever underlying processes might be contributing to the issues.  In addition, they give the patient the illusion that the problem is now under real control.

There are, of course, times, when health problems are not soluble or easily controllable, and managing the symptoms and consequences is the very best we can do, at least for now.  So PLEASE do not think that I am advocating the elimination of Western medicine or that those being treated for chronic health conditions should just give up their pills and let nature take its course.  Yet with so many health problems, even if we have to resort to medication, we can also make lifestyle and behavioral changes that will mitigate our problems and decrease, though not always eliminate, the need for medications (and surgery, when applicable).

We all know, or should know, that taking medicine can be a double-edged sword.  Medications sometimes create new issues of their own.  The human body is an incredibly complex system–arguably the most complicated thing in the known universe, especially when you count the human brain–and when you manipulate such a  system in one way or location, unexpected consequences almost never fail to arise.  This leads to the horrible spectacle of patients receiving medication for one problem, but developing side-effects, which then need to be treated by other medications, and which cause toxicities and interactions that later have to be addressed.  The whole affair can become a vicious cycle of increasing biological chaos, like a metabolic Rube Goldberg machine.  In the elderly especially, it can sometimes be all but impossible to be certain whether new health problems are intrinsic or are caused by earlier treatments.

We try, of course, to mitigate and avoid this conundrum by studying medications as carefully as possible and learning what their possible side-effects are…but every human body is different, and that’s going to continue to be the case, since the number of possible genetically unique humans is vastly greater than the number of human beings who have ever lived.  So we can be guaranteed that the one expectation we can reliably entertain is the UNEXPECTED.

It is better by far to avoid developing problems whenever possible rather than trying to treat them.  This is true because it is simpler and more predictable, and also because it makes life better.  Rather than being a person who identifies themselves by their litany of ailments, for which they build their house-of-cards treatment regimens, we can work to maintain lifestyles that are GOOD for our health, that work with our natures, and that help us to think of ourselves as–and to feel like–healthy, vital and thriving human beings.

Medicines are indeed wonderful products of modern science and technology, and I strongly suspect that they have saved and improved many more lives than they have harmed, even despite what I’ve said above.  If I didn’t think that, I wouldn’t have gone into medicine.  Yet, it would be even better if we could avoid having the need for medications as often as possible in the first place.

I’m going to discussing more of this in future entries.  I’ll go into some fairly obvious lifestyle issues such as exercise and diet, but I’m also going to explore philosophical and psychological aspects of health that can make a great difference in not only how long you live, but also in how much you enjoy the time you have.

A life of a hundred years can be a tragedy and a life of a single day can be a triumph.  It all depends on what kind of life it is.