Plagues in history.

I quite enjoy my local social media but arrived there this morning to find a post giving medical advice had been abruptly removed.

Visiting family last week to take a birthday present, we were assured by their teenage children that the way to beat the virus was to drink warm water because their teacher had told them so.

We have been here before, internationally and at a personal level.  When there is any kind of epidemic, rumours and misinformation abound, which, rather than allaying fears, seem to magnify them.

I have written before about the Black Death, the plague that decimated towns and villages in Europe from the thirteenth century onwards.  So great was the loss of life and the reaction to it that echoes of the fear and hope are still to be found today.

The Plague village of Eyam in the Peak District National Park is a good example.  The OH and I visited it on holiday in the Seventies.  We found beautiful pictures all round the village made by the school children from flowers pressed into clay boards and placed beside the ancient wells.  This well-dressing celebrates and gives thanks for those who survived an outbreak of Bubonic Plague in the seventeenth century. The plague arrived with fleas in a parcel of clothing and cloth for the local tailor, sent from London.  Soon people began dying, eventually about half the village died.  As the deaths proliferated, the vicar made a brave decision and ordered the villagers to stay put to confine the plague to the village and stop it spreading.  Those who lived and those who died seem to have been selected randomly.  The grave digger did not die, despite being the one who buried all the others.  A mother who buried her husband and all her children did not die.  The measure were successful and the tremendous sacrifice of the villagers and a thanks for those who survived are still commemorated in the well-dressing.

When researching doll costumes I came across doctor’s outfits worn during outbreaks of plague. They consisted of long black cloaks, and a black pointed hat, like am extreme witches hat with a curving fabric beak. I was unable to find any information about how you tended to patients with a foot long beak getting in the way. Throughout recent history people have been aware that you can breathe in diseases and that bad smells and bad breath are indicative of a problem.  Henry the Eighth was famous for his bad-smelling leg ulcers.  Given his usual reactions to people he didn’t like, it must have been a brave doctor who treated those ulcers.  It was of course, the great stink of London in 1868 that lead Sir Joseph Bazalgette  to engineer the wonderful modern sewage system for London, that is only just now being superseded by a greater sewerage project.

I am fortunate  that the OH is a former medical microbiologist.  He it was, who in the Seventies, working at the new Queens Medical Centre in Nottingham, landed the research post for Legionnaires’ disease.  This disease, like so many apparent plagues of sudden appearance, had people baffled.  The problem with it was knowing who had it.  It was only identifiable when people were on the mortuary slab and one look at their lungs was all the evidence necessary.  The OH had got into the right place at the right time purely by circumstance.  I had wanted to leave home.  Desperately.  So much so I didn’t care where I went as long as I went.  Being all of five foot two in those heady days I closed my eyes and put a finger on the large map on the common room wall and arrived at places in the Midlands.  Nottingham was the place that was willing to accommodate me and a friend I had made at training college, who subsequently did not want to leave.  I left anyway and was followed shortly after by the boyfriend I thought was only temporary until I left home.  He had other ideas, followed me without even a place to stay, and appeared without a winter coat (because the Midlands is bound to be warmer than the North East) but with a suitcase.

Never take in a strange man out of pity.  Leave him on the doorstep but say hello when you put the milk bottles out.  Politeness at all times. Heigh ho.  On the other hand……

There was no job but there was a newly built hospital needing microbiologists.  I stood on the steps just before the Queen arrived to open the hospital.  A step above me a porter with a carpet sweeper was dashing back and forth on the red carpet.  Then the Queen opened the hospital, then the OH was working, then there was a panic and a plague and in that building the OH wrestled daily with a way of making the disease identifiable before it killed people.  Some days he came home with a terrible headache from staring all day down a backlit microscope.  In the six year term allotted he did it, working alone, though when he published the research papers, the lab and his immediate boss had to get recognition.

What he did was to invent a way of staining it on the microscope slide so it could be identified while people were still alive.  Given the correct treatment, they recovered.   Towards the end of the work the Queen’s Medical Centre became a reference lab for the whole world.  Microbiologists from CDC Atlanta Georgia, Portland Down and the Pasteur Institute in France talked to the OH and replicated his results in their labs. He was offered jobs everywhere.  Working together laboratories round the world beat the disease. If you get Legionella Pneumophila now, a machine called a Gas Liquid Chromatograph will diagnose you with remarkably little fuss, you’ll be given some pills and back to work in no time flat, no matter where you live in the world.

Corona virus will be the same except that there already are people working on it in labs all round the world. If the OH on his own could fight a disease that was killing thousands and win, we will certainly beat this pandemic because there are bright young people busy all over the world as you are reading this. One of them, staring down a microscope right now will be looking at the answer and there will be a vaccine.

Meanwhile until the happy day dawns when the vaccine can be produced in quantity, whilst I would not give advice, what the government in the person of the PM is telling you is absolutely right.  Keep your distance. You do not need to wear a hat with a long felt beak.  The best thing you can do is stand out of the range of other people’s sneezes and wash your hands thoroughly and regularly. Drinking warm water is not anti-microbial behaviour.  I am going shopping in nitrile gloves.  When I get back, I wash them in disinfectant and wipe all packaging with disinfectant before I unpack it and put it away.

Do not panic.  You could still get run over if you don’t look when crossing the road.  You could still have an accident.  You could still die of something else. Essentially, as you read this, personally, the world has not changed.  It may have become a little less social, face to face but that’s all.

We have better information and better ways of communicating it than at any other time in human history.  New global diseases can be beaten.  You heard this from the wife of the horse’s mouth (now retired.)

Stay cheerful.


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