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Rant #123
(published February 27, 2003)
Feels Like I'm Fixing to Die
by David Erik Nelson

Nobody feels good. After childhood, it's a fact of life.
—Mr. Frank Waturi, Joe vs. the Volcano.

OK, yeah, so I'm a little worried about smallpox, these days.

I mean, sure, who isn't? For most of human history, smallpox has loomed large over us, the Eternal Footman in his running shoes, scythe in hand. For most of human history worrying about smallpox has come with the territory.

And, Christ, why not? Smallpox is a bastard: very contagious, fast spreading, deadly— and we're not talking 1 in 1000 or 1 in 100 deadly; I'm talking 1 in 5, even 3 in 5. In 1967 alone, smallpox killed 2 million people. In the 20th Century? 300 to 500 million people— that's 50 Holocausts, 5000 Hiroshimas, or a hundred thousand September 11s. It's more than all of the casualties in all modern wars combined, plus all of the AIDS deaths world-wide, plus cancer. It's about twice the current US population.

Smallpox comes in through the respiratory system, just like the common cold— easy transmission. Early symptoms include fever, backache, headache, nausea, malaise— i.e., all of the symptoms of every piss-ant, don't-worry-'bout-it flu and minor bug out there. I mean, malaise!?!? What kind of symptom is malaise? Does every office worker and adolescent in America have smallpox?

Once those johnny-generic symptoms kick in, you're contagious for 17 days. Just take a second, and think about how many people you meet in two and a half weeks, how many times you're in a place where you breathe other folks' air, hear them cough, brush against them. Elevators. Movie theaters. Banks. Bus stations.


Did I mention that I'm a school teacher? Yeah, I'm a school teacher. The school is a k-12. I catch every damn cold that comes down the pike, every year.

Next, you get a rash. Get used to this rash, because if you live, it'll become the scars you'll carry for the rest of your days, and if you croak it'll be on you under your burial suit. This rash is yours forever. In two weeks, if you're alive, you'll stay alive. If you're dead, it's probably from bleeding or tissue damage.

One of the great successes of human history is that we threw off the specter of smallpox. Through a lot of goddamn hard work and moxie, we got our asses together, and throughout the early and mid-seventies worked like hell to vaccinate the shit out of the human race, and drive that bastard smallpox back. The war was won.

Except, now terrorists and Iraq seem to have bio-weapons grade smallpox— or at least that's the really strong feeling the federal government has been giving me. We've seen what these terrorist cats can do with box cutters— knock down two buildings (considered eye-sores until the fine Autumn morning they were eradicated, by the way), smash a fifth of the sancta sanctorum militarium of the Republic, and kill several thousand people. And Iraq! Don't get me started with Iraq— as in "I Think I'll Gas the Shit Out of These Defenseless Kurd Bastards" Iraq. As in "Winners of Operation Desert Storm" Iraq (or, at least, I presume they won, because Saddam Hussein is still in power, and to the best of my knowledge, invading forces win a war by actually ousting someone. But hey, what do I know? I'm just an English teacher.) And, to top it all off, all we hear from the government is that we don't have enough smallpox vaccine to go around. This is a cluster-fuck of epic proportions.

But wait, there's more. I have eczema. If you're not in the know, eczema is a fairly common skin disorder. Basically, with eczema, you have a patch of skin (mine's on the outside of my right thigh, about 6 inches by four inches) that's perpetual dry and itchy. You put topical, steroids-based creme on it, and that more-or-less keeps the itching in check (although, truth told, it looks angry and red and nasty and dry all the time, and always itches, creme or no. It itches like mad right now. You get used to leaving it alone.)

Eczema is no big deal. Lots of folks have eczema— it's relatively common, easily treated; a nuisance, and nothing more.

But . . .

But as it turns out, eczema— just a nuisance, mind you— interacts poorly with the smallpox vaccine, resulting in a condition called eczema vaccinatum. Eczema vaccinatum comes with high fever, severe sores, scabs and deep scarring over much of the body (remind you of anything?) It can result in blindness, and has a mortality rate of between 1 in 100 and 1 in 17.

But wait, there's more! You don't only get eczema vaccinatum after you've received the smallpox vaccine— you're also likely to get it from contact with others who have received the vaccine.

Uh oh! Double trouble! What a terrific deal!

But the kicker: Smallpox went extinct in 1980. Hell, the last case of smallpox infection in a human in the wild was, eerily, September 11, 1977 (!), and the last person to die of smallpox (in this case under suspicious circumstances: she worked in a building where smallpox research was being done, although she was the only one infected and the route by which she became infected was never clarified) was in 1978.

But if it went extinct, then why is it a risk now?

Well, you see, it went extinct in the wild. We wisely kept two stockpiles of viable smallpox samples, one at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia and the other in the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology in Koltsovo, Russia.

And why did we do that?

Well, you see, we wanted to be sure to have a little smallpox left, just in case it wasn't really extinct, so that we could make more smallpox vaccine, in case we needed it.

Gosh, that sounds like utter bullshit, doesn't it?

It sure does! That's because it is utter bullshit, although it was nonetheless the reason given. Any slouch with an encyclopedia knows that smallpox vaccine isn't made from smallpox; it's made from cowpox (which, in Latin, is known as vaccinia— and, in point of fact, is the root of our word vaccine) Edward Jenner realized that the only folks who didn't seem to ever get smallpox were milkmaids, and discovered that there was only one thing they had in common: they'd all had cowpox. So, in 1796 he used good ole cowpox to put the smackdown on smallpox, a process he called vaccination.

Now, some stupid suits might try and tell you that, even though historically smallpox vaccination was done with cowpox, the cowpox vaccine was never so great, so scientists had kept a sample of smallpox in order to find a better vaccine.

At this time I'd like to defer to my distinguished colleague, Flavor Flav, who reminds the agile thinker "Don't believe the hype!" The only thing wrong with cowpox-based smallpox vaccine is that it's too strong, risks killing people already infected with smallpox, and can't even be given to pregnant ladies, little babies or folks with impaired immune systems, such as grannies on chemo, little boys and girls with transplanted organs, and poor bastards with AIDS.

"Now, now," the nice suit-wearing men say, "You've got us all wrong; we didn't mean we'd make the vaccine from smallpox! That's be mighty silly! We need smallpox in order to infect animals, so we can test possible new preventative treatments and cures."

When you hear that, kids, you can't just tell those nice men in their nice suits and uniforms to nicely shove it where the sun won't shine. Animals can't contract smallpox. Monkeys have been artificially infected at USAMIID, but experiments using animals artificially infected with human diseases are pretty notorious for turning up misleading results.

Smallpox was kept around for one reason: to be used as a weapon, to increase human misery. And now it will. I'm reminded of something good ole Chekhov (Anton the Playwright, not Pavel the Helmsman) one said "If a character shows us a gun in the first act, you now it's gonna get used before the close of the third." But I guess that warehousing a lil' of the ole 'pox was good foreign policy. Like I said earlier, I'm not much on politics— just an English teacher with a funny rash.

The important thing is that I get to reap the benefits, along with the chemo-grannies, the pregnant ladies, the little babies, the kids with dead-men's kidneys and all the poor bastards dying slow from fast sex and dirty needles.

But a man with a ticking time bomb making his thigh itch has to wonder: Where did these mean ole terrorists and mad-dog Iraqis get smallpox?

Strangely, no one seems to be interested in talking about that. Seeing as how smallpox is extinct— or, at least, hasn't been seen since 1978— they certainly didn't harvest it in nature. This isn't anthrax, which you can find in much of the earth's dirt. In strict economic terms, smallpox has a street value probably somewhere between a late Van Gough and the Holy Grail. It just doesn't get more rare than this, and everyone who is supposed to know is convinced Iraq has a nice jar of this stuff, which just makes a fella wonder who put that little present under Mr. Hussein's tree, and whether the card had his name written in Cyrillic stencil or the crisp penmanship of a Yale man.

Post Script:
For the morbidly curious, I've included a picture of a little kid with smallpox courtesy of our pals at the CDC. It's a link, because it is sorta gross, and I didn't want to make any good little girls and boys sad. Of course, if you don't feel like looking at the picture, I guess that's fine. You'll probably see more of them real soon.

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