Saturday, January 3, 2009

Real-Life Red Death (Part 1)

In a 2002 issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases published by the Centers for Disease Control and Preventon, two doctors suggest naming a new strain of disease "Ebola-Poe." (The article is short and fascinating. Read it here). Dr. Setu Vora and Dr. Sundaram Ramanan start with the Red Death itself, pointing out an irony in the story which you may have missed:

High death rates leave Prospero’s dominions “half depopulated.” Poe gives a graphic description of the clinical features and outlines the course of the disease, from the earliest symptoms to the fatal outcome. The red death indiscriminately attacks all segments of the population, including healthy, immunocompetent hosts. Transmission, which seems to be accelerated by overcrowding, is from person-to-person contact and possibly aerosol inhalation. The death rate is highest in the abbey—all those confined inside die, while only half of those left outside do. Outside the abbey, once an infected person exhibits symptoms, others “shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men.”

It was the act of trying to seal themselves off from the disease that doomed Prospero and his comrades. But then the good doctors tick off the diseases Poe may have learned about in one way or another:

Some have speculated that Poe’s family history of tuberculosis (his mother, his adoptive mother, his wife, and possibly his brother died of the disease) may have prompted him to write about a similar disease in Life in Death—a story about a painter and his dying wife, who incidentally resembled Poe’s wife. Along the same lines, Poe’s experience of nursing his wife through her bouts of exsanguinating hemoptysis, cradling her head for hours, and wiping away the blood from her face may well have been on his mind when he mused about “the scarlet stains upon the face” of the afflicted in Masque of the Red Death.

Yellow fever could also be an inspiration, the doctors write, since epidemics of the disease killed tens of thousands of people in US history up to 1905. And port cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore -- where Poe lived, as they point out -- were affected until 1822. But Poe bumped up the death rate and speed the disease spreads. He also gave it a name that would invoke memories of the black plague mingled with that horrific blood loss. But in doing so, he happened to predict a much more frightening group of diseases which hadn't been discovered yet: "the filovirus hemorrhagic fevers, which include Ebola and Marburg." Naturally we should credit the guy:

Whether inspired by tuberculosis or yellow fever, the red death is clearly a concoction of Poe’s imagination. In honor of the creative genius that imagined Ebola fever long before the infection was recognized, the particular strain that causes red death might be named Ebola-Poe.

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