THOUGHTS ON THE COMING PLAGUE

by Crispin B. Hollinshead

 

I recently read the book The Coming Plague, which is a history of the several epidemics that have occurred in the last 20 years. At the same time I was reading Syncronicity, Myth, And The Trickster. The combination of these two perspectives brought me to an understanding which I will attempt to present here.

Syncronicity, a term coined by Jung, is meaningful coincidence. Jung saw the individual as a smaller self, which is what we associate with our waking self-conscious self, and a larger Self, which was our truer being. The larger Self arises out of the archetypal energies of the undifferentiated whole, and is seamlessly connected to the power of the aware universe. Our little self, is a subset or portion of the Self. The boundary of the self is arbitrarily defined by the individual, as a sense of "who I am". Fear is the energy infusing this boundary, which gives it the appearance of immutable definition. We live within this boundary, and react as if it's a real limitation. Any growth in being that we experience, is in the nature of expanding that boundary to include area, aspects, talents or experiences that we previously felt were beyond us; not me.

However, the Self is constantly yearning for expression and is the force which repeatedly pierces our boundary, providing opportunity to expand and grow. Since the Self has at it's disposal the entire creative potential of the universe, it's capacity for orchestrating events in our life is enormous. One of the aspects of this orchestration is syncronicity. Those unexpected occurrences which are acausal, not bounded by local cause and effect, which bring opportunity for expanded awareness. The Self is infinitely patient and relentless in it's drive for expression of it holism.

The Coming Plague describes how man's activities have helped bring about diseases which are of increasing threat to our population. One common theme in all of our actions is the belief in absolute lines, which can divide one part of the world or population from the rest. This belief is in contrast to the larger truth that the world is interconnected in more ways than we acknowledge. The belief in separation is like the individual's belief that they are only the little self. It is a state of mind that has no bearing on reality, yet we live and act from within that illusion.

Within the western medical profession humans are viewed as separate from bacteria and viruses, even though over 50% of our dry body weight is identifiable bacteria. That view of separation is played out as a war on the "bugs". Ever since Pasteur, the west has been lost in a mechanistic view of health that says, bacteria cause disease, so health is equal to no bacteria. Even when Pasteur was making his discoveries, other doctors noted that while everyone who was sick had bacteria, not everyone with bacteria was sick. There was another factor involved.

But the civilization was caught up in the simplicity and power of the mechanical view. Sterilization radically improved the success of medicine of the day. The development of antibiotics brought miracle cures for some of mankind's most persistent diseases. People talked about ending sickness forever. It was just a matter of killing all the bad bugs. Unfortunately, these now look like temporary victories.

Bacteria are very simple organisms, compared to humans. They multiply at astounding rates and have a relatively high mutation rate. What this means in practice is that for any specific antibiotic, there is some small percentage of bacteria that is not affected by the drug, or is relatively resistant to it's effects. The widespread and indiscriminate use of antibiotics has created situations where all the vulnerable bacteria are being killed off, leaving the resistant ones to flourish with no competition.

Bacteria act as if they are aware, as well. The biochemical form that the resistance takes may be a less efficient metabolism or take more energy to produce than is normal for that species. So the DNA coding for the resistance is stored as a small chunk, called a plasmid, which is only spliced into the operating DNA when the bacteria is in the presence of the particular antibiotic that it is coded to resist. When there is no longer any antibiotic around, the code is cut out, and stored as a plasmid again. It's like the bacteria has a storehouse of useful tools and only uses those that are necessary, in order to conserve energy. The rest of the story is that bacteria of different species can exchange plasmids! So when one kind of bacteria develops resistance to a particular antibiotic, eventually others can benefit from that new information. Bacteria share in their drive to survive.

Hospitals are now dealing with infestations of resistant bacteria. Some are resistant to many kinds of antibiotics, some are even resistant to the sterilization processes traditionally used in cleaning the hospital facility. There is now a strain of staph which is resistant to all but one of the available antibiotics. Staph can infect open wounds and, if untreated, kill by toxic shock, within a matter of days. Hospitals are becoming dangerous places to be!

Drug companies are constantly working on new antibiotics, but that is a slow and expensive process. Many of the more recent new drugs are only slight variations on previous ones. Fundamental breakthroughs are hard to produce on demand. Furthermore, bacteria mutate much faster than human ingenuity can progress.

Aspects of our social economy have helped accelerate the development of resistant bacteria. Commercial meat production involves crowding many animals into small areas. This produces more opportunity for diseases to spread, so antibiotics are routinely added to animal food. Since this is a shotgun approach, not really targeted by need, some animals may not get enough for a therapeutic dose, and they become breeding grounds for resistant strains. Also, much of the antibiotic passes through the animal and into the soil and water table, again creating environments where only the resistant strains survive and breed. Antibiotic residues are in the meat and the consumer is ingesting a low grade dose of all these antibiotics, as well.

There are doctors who prescribe antibiotics like candy. Antibiotics are prescribed for viral infections, which are totally unaffected by them. Some people take them for cosmetic problems. This all contributes to creating environments where the resistant strains flourish and become more widespread.

The war on microbes is not the only way that our culture draws lines, resulting in more lethal diseases. We draw economic and racial lines within the society as well. In the United States, health care is reserved for those that can pay the price. The poorer the person, the less likely they are to have adequate health care. Because we are a country of the rugged individualist, there is no commitment by the society to maintain the overall health of the entire population. We are beginning to see the costs of such narrow minded thinking.

A case in point is tuberculosis or TB. This is an air born bacterial infection, which has been effectively treated with antibiotics for many decades now. However, a sick person needs as much as 6 months of regular antibiotic treatment in order to totally eliminate the infection, even though after 2 months that person may feel better. Tuberculosis is more easily spread in crowded living conditions, where the people may be undernourished or assaulted by other environmental, addictive, or infectious conditions. Thus, the poorer sections of our society are likely to be fine breeding grounds. The society provides some modest health care for the indigent, but it is underfunded and understaffed. The result of this situation is that many people will come in for treatment of TB, and receive a series of antibiotics. They feel better after awhile and either don't come back for the rest of the treatment, or start selling the antibiotics on the street to others who are sick. Consequently, only the vulnerable TB bacteria are affected, leaving the resistant ones to flourish without competition. Shortly, the person is sick again, but this time the strain is mostly resistant and it takes even more effort to bring it under control. The medical profession is now quite concerned about the rapid increase in the number of resistant cases of TB.

This drawing of the economic line also manifests at the global level. In the US, the average annual percapita expenditure on health care is several thousand of dollars. In the poorer countries in Africa, it may be only a few dollars a year. In the mid 70's, there was an outbreak of a new kind of lethal hemorrhaging fever, called Ebola Fever, in central Africa. Because of the natural isolation of the area, the disease didn't spread to the more populated areas. Investigation after the fact found that one of the principal reasons the fever spread with such lethal speed, was that the health care available in the area was so underfunded that as many as 400 people were being injected with the same syringe! The health clinic in the area didn't have the resources to sterilize the needles between injections, so once an infected person came to the clinic, everyone else in the clinic wound up being injected with the fever. Those that caught the fever by being exposed to an infected person had a 30% chance of dying. Those that were infected by injection had a 90% chance of dying. The underfunded health clinic brought death.

We make a mistake when we think that we can draw a line between the haves and the have nots and be protected by our illusion. Borders and wealthy suburbs are no boundaries for bacteria, which live in the real world of the interconnected whole. Humans are all the same from the perspective of bacteria.

Another result of the investigation into the cause of the outbreak of Ebola Fever, was the recognition that as humanity has destroyed more and more of the wild areas of the planet, we are coming into contact with micro regions that may harbor bacterial and viral strains that have never before been encountered by man. So we are totally unprotected by natural antibody resistance. Another part of this story is that the decimation of many of the wild species, particularly monkeys and apes, has forced diseases that are normally not infectious in mankind, to mutate to survive on the new dominant food species, humanity.

So we could say that the increased threat of more virulent diseases is a direct result of drawing absolute lines, refusing to recognize the interconnectedness of reality. Life, like the larger Self, operates within that connected whole and responds to our misguided illusions by piercing our lines, transcending our boundaries. These diseases show us that we are all together in this. That the rich have at much at stake in keeping the poor healthy as they do their own family or country. We are all blood brothers and sisters.

There is another level of consideration here as well. The bacteria and viruses want to survive as well. They mutate to respond to threats and are more benign when the threats are removed. There is a bacteria that infects fig wasps, which is normally only transmitted from one generation to the next. However, when the wasp population is large, the bacteria can also be transmitted from one adult wasp to another. When the population drops, the transmission form reverts to only generational. There is a dynamic balance established. Perhaps our entire approach to disease needs to be reformulated. Perhaps we need to recognize that health is not simply an entire lack of bacteria, but rather a dynamic balance where those bacteria within our bodies are kept at a modest level, not flourishing out of control. Perhaps the idea of peaceful coexistence is appropriate for our views on health and microbes, as well as for our views on foreign policy or ethnic diversity.

The infectious bacteria and virus may be showing us that we need to reorder our entire way of thinking about the world. Maybe this is simply nature's wakeup call.