Untangling what’s going on in the world
Dr. Bradly Bundrant MD, MPH
What’s going on in the world?! Instead of the usual drip, drip, drip of bad news, we are experiencing a torrent of terrible news! Of course, the latest tragedy that has gripped our collective consciousness is the horrific school shooting in Uvalde, and before that we had the mass shooting in Buffalo, New York.
There’s also Monkeypox, which our president says, “Everyone should be worried…”.
On another front, hundreds of infants across the country have fallen ill due to a shortage of formula. Suicide and murder rates are rising across the country. Emergency rooms across the country are seeing record numbers of patients with mental health issues. The number of overdose deaths in this country last year was the highest on record. Besides these things, we still have the COVID-19 pandemic. Even the name is scary. It’s not just “COVID”. Adding the number 19 sends the implicit message: “This is not the last COVID”.
COVID-19 and its aftermath have been devastating in many ways, but none of the damage is likely to be as permanent as the destruction of public trust in science and government. Perhaps the most telling example is the unexpected change in the definition of the word “vaccination”. Previously, the CDC defined vaccination as “the act of introducing a vaccine into the body to produce immunity against a specific disease.” On or about May 4, 2021, the CDC website began displaying a new definition, stating that vaccination is “the act of introducing a vaccine into the body to produce protection against a specific disease.”
The difference between “immunity against a disease” and “protection against a disease” reflects the fact that we cannot rely on COVID vaccinations to do what we did with smallpox, or even measles. Smallpox was eliminated through vaccination, and measles outbreaks in this country occur largely because of pockets of people who refuse to get vaccinated. When a person is immune to a disease, they are not only protected against that disease, but they are also unable to transmit the disease to other unvaccinated people.
We can’t rely on our COVID vaccines to do either of those things. In the case of smallpox, we humans succeeded in eliminating the disease (in 1979) through a technique called “ring immunization”. After smallpox vaccination reduced the number of cases worldwide to a few hundred a year, it was realized that we could not rely on universal vaccination to rid us of the disease. This is for two reasons: no vaccine is perfect and there will always be people who are not vaccinated. After accepting these facts, the World Health Organization did something great. They started a program to identify every new case of smallpox, then they sent teams to those places to vaccinate all potential contacts of people with smallpox. This created a ring of immunity around the outbreak.
The story of the smallpox vaccine is worth telling briefly. A country doctor in 18th century England noticed that milkmaids did not appear to be afflicted with the devastating and deadly disease of smallpox. From an early age these women were employed milking cows and Dr. Edward Jenner observed that almost all of them contracted a case of cowpox early in their employment. He felt that it was somehow related to the fact that they did not have smallpox.
Since cowpox is a mild illness in humans, he tried to squeeze some of the contents of a cowpox pustule into scratches on his and others’ skin. This produced a pustule or a few pustules in that area, as well as some discomfort in the person, but she did not catch smallpox when exposed later. It took time and the process was refined, but the modern process is essentially quite similar. The word vaccine is related to the Spanish word “vaca”, which means cow, and it comes from the Latin word that has been used for hundreds of years for cowpox disease, “vaccinia”.
Smallpox, cowpox, and monkeypox all belong to the Orthopoxvirus family of double-stranded DNA viruses. There are 12 of them, and they are similar enough that we can use the smallpox vaccine against monkeypox. It can be deployed, like the smallpox eradication program, in a ring immunization model, and we can expect it to work the old fashioned way to provide real immunity to monkeypox disease . This is one of the reasons why “everyone” does not have to worry about this disease; the other reason is that contracting the disease requires close physical contact with someone infected with monkeypox, and recent outbreaks have been mostly (but not entirely) limited to men who have sex with men.
So what about all the other terrible things described in the first paragraph? After all, as I write this, there are dozens of families less than 200 miles away mourning the murdered victims in Uvalde, Texas. What’s wrong with this world?! And besides, why is everything so POLITICAL these days? It just seems like it’s getting worse. What happened? What can we do?
There’s a point to all of this, even though it seems disjointed, but before I make that point, I want to touch on a few points that are important, but aren’t the point. To begin, we must acknowledge the tremendous grief that weighs heavily on the hearts of the grieving families in Buffalo and Uvalde. We also need to remember those who were physically or emotionally hurt and survived.
There is also great sadness and permanent worry or fear in the lives of all Ukrainians and every family member of any Russian soldier. Those of us who pray should remember this in our prayers, and we should pray daily for these and for others. We should also pray for our nation and its leaders at all levels. It is also true that elections have consequences and we need to be informed citizens. As such, we must play an active role in our own governance. However, gratitude, prayer and political activism are not my purpose today.
We are told that there is no single cause for our problems, and that must certainly be true. However, it is as if something had changed… as if something had changed. I believe this is a radical shift in priorities. The human intellect, imagination and invention are perhaps the most powerful things in the world, and for generations they have been used in the service of the inventor and his family, his tribe, his state, its nation and humanity as a whole.
All great innovations – from attaching a stick to a piece of rock to create an axe, to Edward Jenner’s use of cowpox to prevent smallpox – were first created in the mind human. These first appeared as ideas that were solutions to problems. It was only later that their inventors created precise blueprints and used real objects to translate their ideas into artifacts that could be useful to themselves and others.
In these cases we see that the intellect and the imagination can be used in the service of real people. What the evidence indicates in the case of each of the gun-wielding teenagers in Buffalo and Uvalde is that they created horrific scenes of chaos in their imaginations, planned how to stage such scenes, and then obtained the necessary materials to force others to participate and die according to the imagination of the shooter. In other words, real people were put to work for the shooter’s imagination.
When individuals plan and stage a mass murder, with the intention of not surviving that day, everyone asks, “Why? The why question is asked so often that people have stopped trying to answer it. That’s my point: there is an answer, and it has to do with these shooters imposing their twisted imaginations on others and forcing them to participate. Next week we will take a closer look at these phenomena, as well as what we can do in practice. Additionally, you can see more information at www.HAWC4RC.org. Under the Dr. B Articles tab, you will find the article titled “Sociopathy as a Public Health Issue” which was written after the 2017 Las Vegas mass shootings,