In the movie Hellboy, a young FBI agent is assigned to a very secret organization. In his introduction to the unit, the founder tells him “There are things that go bump in the night, Agent Myers. Make no mistake about that. And we are the people who bump back.” While the movie was about paranormal threats, there are large number of things in the real world of which it can be said to “go bump in the night:” A wide range of diseases that most people in this country (or many others) have never heard of. Every now and then, one of them comes out of obscurity to let people know it’s out there. One of them is now in the news: Ebola. It’s been known about for almost 4o years, and there have been sporadic outbreaks over that time. It’s not until recently, with a mass outbreak in Africa, and cases in this country that it’s become “news.”
It’s just one of many different diseases in the world that the majority of people in this country have no idea exist, or at best, give a passing thought to as “not a problem.” That isn’t the case for many people in the world. My own introduction to that came over 30 years ago, when I ended up being assigned to a lab working on schistosomiasis. It wasn’t where I thought I’d be working when I joined the Army, but that slot had been filled by someone else and I had a qualification: I’d heard of it. Over the next decade, I got an introduction to a host of various diseases. Malaria, trypanosomiasis, leishmaniasis, Guinea worm, onchocerciasis, among many others, parasitic diseases which infect hundreds of millions of people each year. Then there were the bacteria, like yaws, cholera, typhoid fever, and trachoma. Viral diseases, including a list of hemorrhagic fevers, of which Ebola is just one.
Why would the military be doing research on these diseases? Not because of paranoid suspicions for “biological warfare,” but for a reason based in history. American troops have ended up in various places around the world where these diseases are endemic, and over that history a lot of casualties have been because of them. If most of your troops are out sick, they can’t fight. Hence, work on finding vaccines, curative or preventive drugs, or protection measures.
While that’s all well and good, the thing was that even in the military, there wasn’t a lot of interest in it and funding was often skimpy. Oh, every now and then there would be a news story about something and suddenly money would flow. We called that “60 Minutes funding.” It was also the case in the civilian world. There weren’t a lot of researchers working on most of these diseases, and their work was often done on a shoestring. The reasons for that were fairly straightforward. They “aren’t a problem” in this country, they’re only a problem “somewhere else,” and the places where they are a problem are poor and not able to spend the money for research or any new treatments if they were found. There are more pressing diseases, often with vocal constituencies, to push for funding or willingness to pay for treatments.
As a result, people are in the dark about them. But here’s the sad thing: Some of them are closer than you think. Some are already here. For example, leishmaniasis is endemic, there have been cases of Chagas’ disease here in the US, and Dengue fever is not too far away. As we have seen with Ebola, sometimes a disease is just a plane ride away. They’re all things that “go bump in the night,” and not too many people know about them. But there’s a hopeful side. Despite little attention and funding, there are also people who are working to bump back. It’d be nice if they didn’t need to have a major outbreak for people to learn what they’re doing.