The Financial Express

Man and diseases: A continuous battle

Shihab Sarkar | Published: January 30, 2020 21:04:02

Entrusted by President  Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, Premier Li Keqiang (clad in a blue protective suit and mask) visited Wuhan to inspect and direct the efforts for the prevention and control of the novel coronavirus outbreak. 	—Photo: Xinhua Entrusted by President Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, Premier Li Keqiang (clad in a blue protective suit and mask) visited Wuhan to inspect and direct the efforts for the prevention and control of the novel coronavirus outbreak. —Photo: Xinhua

It has been nearly a fortnight since the onslaught of the panic-generating coronavirus-carrying SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) was recorded in China. Many bio-experts have called it a SARS-like affliction, not heard of earlier. Most of them are of the opinion that the virus is of a mutant form.  From its first detection, the already dreaded disease continues to spread throughout different parts of the world. Its earlier strain had also witnessed a catastrophic outbreak in 2002 and 2003 after it started in China. The disease that time killed around 800 people globally. The new type of SARS, or coronavirus, is said to be filled with more ferocity than the previous one. On the eve of the Chinese Lunar New Year Festival, the contagious disease has created enormous volumes of panic among the country's general people. A travel ban has strictly been slapped. Meanwhile, nearly 5000 people have been infected globally. Over 100 persons have died in China after being infected.

The fast spread of the coronavirus SARS to some regional countries and its appalling flight to far-away lands like France, the US and Australia carries the potential for veritably a global sweep of the pandemic. On the other hand, against the backdrop of the outbreak in Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, Bangladesh lies straight on the unpredictable path of the dreadful disease. Coronavirus-infected persons have been detected in Nepal, a neighbour of Bangladesh. Mandatory screening of travellers from the neighbouring countries has been intensified at land border check posts and airports.

A worrying aspect of the ongoing coronavirus SARS is the disease is caused by a virus found in wildlife species and seafood. The spread of the 2002-2003 SARS was prompted by the practice of eating wildlife meat. Scientists at that time proposed that strict prohibitory measures be in place to wean people off the hazardous habit. But the custom has not stopped. The earlier SARS epidemic was traced largely to the meat of bats and civets. Despite warnings of dire consequences, the so-called bush-meat market in China continued to thrive, especially in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. The illegal market is said to be a centre of meat of wild animals ranging from rats, wolf puppies and large salamanders.

Like SARS, scores of flu viruses have been proved to have jumped from domesticated avian creatures, and some animals, to their own species, and then humans. The dreadful bird flu and swine flu touched off repeated bouts of panic in Asia at the end of the 20th century and the 21st century. The bird flu originated in Hong Kong in 1997. From that year onwards, the disease has killed millions of poultry birds. And millions other were culled in poultry farms in the affected regions. Humans were also reported to have contracted the disease that spread through countries in Asia, Europe and Africa. Though on a smaller scale, the swine flu has also exacted a toll on the people attacked by it.

Like the present outbreak of the 'mysterious' SARS, the earlier form of the respiratory disease, in its first strike ever, had virtually made the whole world feel quite edgy. The world has progressed a lot since the year of the SARS strike in 1997. With the amazing improvement in man's global mobility, it did not take long for the debilitating disease to become a global health calamity.

According to scientists, lots of fatal or pesky communicable diseases are poised to strike humans, many of their origins shrouded in obscurity. However, a large section of health sector activists hold the imprudence of mankind for this turn of things. The hazards directly related to reckless human activities include the fallout of climate-change. Apart from prompting the global climate to behave erratically, the changes in it have been feared to become conducive to the creation of unheard-of bacteria. One cannot rule out the overrunning of large tracts of the Earth by newer agents of pandemic diseases in a few decades' time --- especially once the climate-change fallout like global warming and sea-level rise start affecting mankind. Biotechemists have already sounded alarm over the spread of tick-borne diseases in areas affected by climate change impacts. Besides, the spectres of mutant viruses, like the suspected coronavirus, are feared to end up being virtual monsters in the form of pathogens.

In the last four decades, a series of hitherto unknown communicable diseases has made deadly assaults on the large swathes in various parts of the world. The Sub-Saharan Africa emerges as the largest one. With their killer diseases, in both ancient and newer types, the regions of South and Southeast Asia follow the countries in Western, Central and Eastern Africa. The fact that the global scourge of AIDS prevalence has spared none of these countries, with some in the Sub-Saharan region considered the root-countries prompting HIV infection, has long been proved true. At the same time, a few countries in the two American continents and Europe also stand out with their typically higher numbers of AIDS victims.

When it comes to diseases, the 21st century world has fallen into its worst time yet since the ravages made by cholera in the late 19th century Europe. In those days, the outbreak and contracting of the killer disease had been blamed on a miasmatic air or 'bad air' or 'night air'. This widely believed cause behind the spread of cholera had uncanny resemblance with the belief in the Bengal region that a wicked female phantom called Ola Devi used to spread the dreadful disease. The people living near the path which she ran along during the night in the cholera-stricken rural areas were destined to die of cholera. 'The miasma theory' in circulation in Europe had ruled the continent for a couple of centuries until Robert Koch homed in on the virus responsible for causing cholera. He also came up with the ways of how to tackle and treat the contagious disease. From then on, it was the 'germ theory' that would define the nature of cholera and some other diseases.

Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries witnessed the outbreak of many other killer diseases. The two most fearful of them were bubonic plague and the parasite-borne black fever, as well as smallpox. These pandemic diseases killed millions in Europe in the early 14th and, after a gap, in the later centuries. The list of once-killer diseases is quite long. They include tuberculosis, types of pneumonia, malaria, dengue and a lot of localised diseases. These diseases were once widespread in the Sub-continent, with many successfully coped with long ago. Killer diseases have posed great threats to human existence through the ages. Thanks to environmental and atmospheric influences and yet-to-decipherable reasons, many contagious diseases still puzzle humans. Health experts now dread the possible returns of flues and SARS-like diseases at short or long intervals. All this has a lot to do with both life-styles and the extent of polluting the environment.

To speak in brief, every age has its own ailments. Diseases also plagued the prehistoric people. In course of time a lot of those have disappeared to make room for newer afflictions. This is how the cycle of ailments has been moving since the earliest times of mankind. Man's battle with diseases is part of an endless process.



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