Right now the media is fixated on the first case of Ebola to reach U.S. shores (without the assistance of the CDC, that is). Dr. Thomas Frieden, CDC director, says the disease will be stopped in its tracks, and for once I believe him. This is what the CDC does well -- track an outbreak in real time, find contacts, quarantine if necessary, and put an end to it.
Enterovirus 68, I'm afraid, may be another story. We first started hearing about the bug earlier this year, when a couple of dozen cases of paralysis in children started popping up in California. At that point we weren't hearing about how dangerous the respiratory symptoms were, just that some children ended up with various kinds of paralysis in association with it. Now the primary respiratory illness seems more virulent (a Rhode Island girl died just yesterday), and it's causing wider cases of paralysis (Colorado, Michigan, Boston ... and counting).
Which story is bigger? I vote for the enterovirus.
On the one hand, we've got one case of exotic and terrifying Ebola, a disease that makes your eyes ooze blood and is the proverbial "plane ride away." We keep hearing about how every terrible vaccine-preventable disease that is no longer a threat in the United States -- polio being a classic example -- is just a plane ride away, and that all 300 million of us need multiple injections starting in infancy in case it lands here. (Makes you wonder why we're not still getting yellow fever shots, doesn't it!)
But when a disease does in fact land here, public health surveillance catches it in a heartbeat, even with a goof like the Dallas emergency room sending the Ebola victim home the first time.
What's much more disturbing, on the other hand, is a disease that appears to be endemic - Enterovirus 68 -- that spreads much more easily.
And -- this is key -- the endemic one appears to be acting strangely. Ebola is nasty, but we know its evil ways. We haven't seen an enterovirus causing any appreciable paralysis since -- well, since polio. That bug circulated in the same way, generally caused no major problems, but starting in the late 1800s, inexplicably got into the nervous system of a small percentage of those infected and became something else entirely.
No one ever really got a handle on why that happened -- they just created a vaccine that wiped it out in the United States. Now, having basically learned nothing from that epidemic, we've got another bug whose behavior is similar -- and about which we also know nothing.
“Parents ask, ‘Why? Why my child or why not my child?’” Colorado public health official Larry Wolk said of paralysis from E-68. “And it’s a question we can’t answer because we don’t really know why some of these kids go on to develop this type of serious complication.”
Well, we do have an idea, one that AOA has been investigating for several years, since Mark Blaxill and I observed in 2011 that polio epidemics seemed to arise along with new and highly toxic pesticides -- namely, lead arsenate -- in the late 1800s. Because polio is an enterovirus, which reproduces in the gut, we proposed an interaction between the virus and the pesticide residue from fruits or vegetables. We theorized this let the virus into the nervous system, where it caused the characteristic damage to the anterior horn cells at the top front of the spinal column.
When we looked into the new California cluster of paralysis earlier this year, the first case we identified was a child whose parents own a vineyard; her mother remembered the child had just eaten raspberries. The doctors, she told us, didn't seem interested because it was clearly not botulism. The doctors weren't interested in talking to us about this idea of a pesticide cofactor, either.
It behooves them to get interested, because something is happening here and they don't know what it is. Is there a new pesticide or other toxic exposure out there that's potentiating this enterovirus, just as (we believe) lead arsenate and later DDT did in the last century? Or is the virus itself spreading more widely, or developing a more virulent strain, in the pesticide-saturated environment of twenty-first century America? Maybe the honeybees and white-nose bats are the canaries in the coal mine of this new health threat.
We may be may be at the front end of a cycle like polio -- a small cluster in agricultural areas last year, followed by a wider circle so far this year, followed by massive breakouts to come. I hope that public health folks will overlook the source of this idea (namely, people like us, whose ideas on autism they don't like) and take a fearless look at the source of the problem. Sometimes you do have to believe six impossible things before breakfast, or at least set aside your sneering disbelief and consider the facts at hand and the lives at stake.
While we're spending billions to stamp out polio in South Asia and Africa, and obsessing over a single Ebola case already safely in quarantine, a polio-like enterovirus is running rampant and, quite possibly, setting up for a long siege.
This prospect is outside the CDC's wheelhouse because it does not follow the straight lines of germ theory - one microbe, one disease. It's another paradigm altogether -- a possible microbe-toxin interaction, the kind we've written about many times. And it comes uncomfortably close to interactions (MMR and thimerosal, another microbe and metal combination) they have already rejected as impossible.
I'm afraid they feel much more at home waging war on Ebola.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.