Evolving World: The presages of ancient diseases in modern times

Evolving World: The presages of ancient diseases in modern times


Throughout history and in today’s rapidly globalizing era, humans have evolved around bacteria and viruses.

Despite efforts to curb these, they have found new ways to infect us – And the battle is endless.

Ever wondered as to what would happen if we were unexpectedly exposed to deadly bacteria and viruses that have been dormant for thousands of years, or that we have never heard of before?

Owing to the climatic changes, the permafrost soils that have been frozen for thousands of years are melting, and as the soils melt they are discharging ancient viruses and bacteria that, having lain inactive, are leaping back to life.

In August 2016, in a remote corner of Siberian tundra called the Yamal Peninsula in the Arctic Circle, a 12-year-old boy died and at least twenty people were hospitalized after being infected by anthrax.

The theory follows; over 75 years ago, a reindeer infected with anthrax expired, and its frozen carcass was trapped under a layer of frozen soil, known as permafrost, until a torrid heatwave in summer 2016 thawed it completely, thereby injecting infectious anthrax into nearby water and soil, and then into the food supply. More than 2,000 reindeer grazing nearby became susceptible to this infection, which later translated to a small number of human cases.

Likewise, as the Earth warms, more permafrost is likely to melt. Under normal circumstances, superficial permafrost layers about 50cm deep melt every summer. But now global warming is gradually exposing older permafrost layers.

Frozen permafrost soil is the perfect place for bacteria to remain alive for a long span of time, for almost a million years. That means melting ice could potentially unleash a Pandora’s box of ‘newly ancient’ diseases.

Moreover, the temperature in the Arctic Circle is rising quickly, about three times faster than in the rest of the world. As the ice and permafrost melt, other infectious agents may also be released.

In the early 20th Century alone, more than a million reindeers died from anthrax. It is not easy to excavate deep graves, so most of these carcasses are buried close to the surface, dispersed among 7,000 burial grounds in northern Russia.

However, the big fear is what else is lurking beneath the frozen soil.

People and animals have been buried in permafrost for centuries, so it is conceivable that other infectious agents could be unleashed

In a 2011 study, Boris Revich and Marina Podolnaya wrote: “As a consequence of permafrost melting, the vectors of deadly infections of the 18th and 19th Centuries may come back, especially near the cemeteries where the victims of these infections were buried.”

There are researchers say they have found bodies with sores characteristic of the marks left by smallpox. While they did not find the smallpox virus itself, they have detected fragments of its DNA.

Certainly, it is not the first time that bacteria frozen in ice have come back to life.

Once they were revived, the viruses quickly became infectious

However, not all bacteria can come back to life after being frozen in permafrost. Anthrax bacteria can do so because they form spores, which are extremely hardy and can survive frozen for longer than a century.

Other bacteria that can form spores, and so could survive in permafrost, include tetanus and Clostridium botulinum, the pathogen responsible for botulism: a rare illness that can cause paralysis and even prove fatal. Some fungi can also survive in permafrost for a long time.

Some viruses can also survive for lengthy periods. Once they were revived, the viruses quickly became infectious.

In February 2017, NASA scientists announced that they had found 10-50,000-year-old microbes inside crystals in a Mexican mine.

The bacteria have somehow become resistant to 18 types of antibiotics

The bacteria were trapped inside small, fluid pockets of the crystals, but once they were removed they revived and began multiplying. The microbes are genetically unique and may well be new species, but the researchers are yet to publish their work.

Antibiotic resistance has been around for millions or even billions of years

As Earth warms northern countries will become more susceptible to outbreaks of “southern” diseases like malaria

The alternative perspective is that we should not ignore risks just because we cannot quantify them.

However, some of the widespread ancient diseases are as follows:

  • Plague

You can get plague from fleas that have carried the Yersinia pestis bacteria from an infected rodent, or by handling an infected animal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Bubonic plague is the most common form in the U.S., while pneumonic plague (affecting the lungs) and septicemic plague (affecting the blood) are less prevalent but more serious. Symptoms of bubonic plague include fever, chills, headache, and swollen lymph glands.

The good news is that plague is extremely rare, has a very low risk of person-to-person transmission, and can be effectively treated with antibiotics.

(The bad news is that plague can be fatal if treatment isn’t started within 24 hours of the arrival of symptoms.) To stay safe, avoid contact with wild rodents (that means squirrels and chipmunks, in addition to rats), steer clear of dead critters, and call your doctor if you develop any of the stated symptoms.

·        Mumps

The virus that causes mumps is spread in close quarters (think college dorms or locker rooms) via coughing, sneezing, talking, or sharing cups or eating utensils. Symptoms of mumps include fatigue, fever, head and muscle aches, and loss of appetite, followed by puffy cheeks caused by swelling of the salivary glands. There is no treatment, but most people recover fully in a few weeks. Complications are rare, but can include hearing loss, meningitis, and inflammation of the testicles or ovaries.

The only way to prevent the mumps (aside from avoiding people with it) is to get the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine. Though usually administered to kids, you can get the vaccine at any time. It’s not foolproof (two doses are 88% effective at preventing the disease, per the CDC), and its protection can wear off over time, but it’s vastly better to get the shot than not. Booster doses are often recommended during outbreaks.

·        Measles

Like mumps, measles was once widespread: in its heyday, nearly every American child got the disease before they turned 15, and an estimated 400 to 500 Americans died from it each year, according to the CDC. Widespread adoption of the vaccine in the 1960s, however, led to the elimination of the disease from the U.S. in 2000.

Symptoms of measles include fever, cough, runny nose, red eyes, and a rash that typically begins at the hairline and spreads downward across the body. Complications can include diarrhea and ear infections, and in rare cases, life-threatening pneumonia and encephalitis.

·        Tuberculosis

Antibiotics have dramatically reduced its deadliness, particularly in the US, and as recently as the 1990s it was believed that tuberculosis could be eliminated from the world by 2025, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. But it persists, killing between 2 and 3 million people globally each year. Though most Americans don’t consider TB a threat.

TB is caused when Mycobacterium tuberculosis attacks the lungs. It’s spread through the air when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks (though not by shaking hands, kissing, or sharing food, drink, or toothbrushes). People with compromised immune systems are especially vulnerable. Symptoms of TB include a cough that lasts three weeks or longer, often producing blood, as well as fatigue, fever and weight loss.

The good news is that TB is curable with treatment, though several different antibiotics must be taken over 6 to 12 months. To stay safe, avoid contact with TB patients, particularly in crowded, enclosed environments.

·        Scarlet fever

Caused by the same type of bacteria behind strep throat (Streptococcus), fever commonly afflicts children ages 5 to 12, and shares many symptoms with strep (fever, sore throat, headache, nausea), along with a red, sandpapery rash that appears on the chest and neck and may spread across the body.

To stay safe, avoid contact with infected people (the disease spreads via sneezes or coughs), wash your hands regularly (as you would to ward off any communicable disease), and seek treatment as soon as symptoms develop. “It’s easily transmitted in group settings,” says Dr. Phillips, “so there is the risk that when a toxigenic strain moves into a community, it would spread rapidly.”

In addition to this, here are some more facts you might not be aware of:

Did You Know? 

Scientists say it could be the “game over” for planet Earth…

• If the Earth’s temperature rises seven degrees Celsius, it could trigger the kind of global warming that may have turned Venus from a habitable planet into a 460C version of hell
• According to one of the most academic journals, if humans continue to ignore climate change, temperatures could rise by more than seven degrees Celsius within our lifetimes
• Some have dismissed that the world would continue to burn fossil fuels despite obvious global warming, but emissions are still increasing despite a 1C rise in average thermometer readings since the 1880s

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