It is a rare thing for boundaries of four states to meet in the USA. And when they do, it is a pretty big deal. The Four Corners region of the USA is a unique quadripoint where Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico meet. Though for such an important region, the area has pretty much been removed from the front pages of the news. In my mind, it is the sort of place where the sun rules mightily, and the wind blows dust and tumbleweed to and fro. A sleepy place connotated by the Four Corners Monument (you will remember this from a scene out of “Breaking bad”), red cliffs and Mr. Coyote running after The Roadrunner along mirage-ridden roads. It is also a magical place as the coyote and roadrunner always survive great falls from cliffs. I may want to go there one day.
However, the tides changed for this region in 1993 as with a cruel twist of fate, the whole of America set its eyes on it. Many families tuned up the evening o’clock news and even teenagers took a break from listening to their mixed tapes on their Walkmans. A hideous disease had erupted in the town and no one knew what it was exactly. At the epicentre of the drama was the local medical centre, in Gallup, New Mexico that had seen strange presentations of patients with breathlessness and what appeared as a nasty flu. Death followed soon in most of these cases and post-mortems revealed fluid-filled lungs. The local Navajo people didn’t know what was coming their way.
Reports of this strange findings were wired to boffins at the CDC and within a week, many important-looking people from the CDC pulled up in black vehicles and sunglasses to investigate and interrogate everything that had a heartbeat in their usual fashion. Samples were taken and questionnaires were filled.
Television media broadcasted discussions and interviews of this new “Navajo Flu”. As luck would have it, a doctor who had worked in Korea in the 1950s was listening in on one such discussion. It was around thirty years ago but something still made this doctor’s science antennae chime. He called in the TV show to tell of the striking resemblance the new disease had to one he had observed over in Asia. He claimed it was caused by a hantavirus. This was a virus that was only documented in Asia and Europe at the time; America had never seen it before. At the time, hantaviruses had also never involved lungs in their terrible wake – only the kidneys. This was a source of curiosity.
This revelation led to outbreak investigators testing tissues from the diseased for antibodies against this virus. They also sampled rodents from the homesteads of the affected people. The verdict was in. It was a hantavirus. Deer mice were the culprits in harbouring this virus. Inhaling air contaminated with excrement (urine or faeces) from these seemingly innocent mice that contains the virus is like setting up a meeting with a hooded skeleton holding a scythe…a good way to make you meet your fate in the afterlife.
The cat was out of the bag, or in this case, the mice. Clever people gave the disease the name “Four Corners Disease” and the causative agent the “Four Corners Virus”, obviously after the Four Corners region. The local Navajo people however could not have this. They got up in arms with pitch forks as their leaders protested using their good name to describe such a dreadful disease. After many meetings and power point presentations with people in suits and breaks where everyone ate cold sandwiches, the names were scrapped.
The disease was renamed the “Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome” or “Hantavirus Cardiopulmonary Syndrome”, long names that would cause sleepless nights for medical students all over the world as they crammed for their oral exams. The disease’s causative agent retained a bit of its local Hispanic roots, though only just. It became the “Sin Nombre virus”, which is Spanish for “the nameless virus” as no other name would be given to the virus except for the name of the place it was first discovered in. This is the scientific custom with most viruses of this kind after all. The locals had won and power was to the people.
More cases of Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (or HPS in short as ain’t nobody got time for the long name) were identified in the years that followed, silently specking America’s history. From 1993, the virus has taken many in its path, surviving to see the Clinton administration, nine eleven, President Obama and even MJ’s death. It has on average infected tens of people every year. A recent outbreak of the disease in 2012 at Yosemite National Park in California that killed 3 tourists was an all too familiar script for disease outbreak investigators, reminiscent of the virus’s 1993 birthday in the country.
But like any great story of diseases, more questions arise as answers arrive. Why some who are exposed get the disease and others don’t. Why only certain deer mice get the virus and others find better things to do like pilfer farmers’ crops all day long. Why the disease only pops up at certain times in certain areas despite the fact that deer mice, like most rodents, can be found everywhere.
One thing is not a question though. For a virus that has no name, it sure has made quite the name for itself.