Doctors Face Death TRAILING Living Poisons of MYSTERY DISEASES (Dec, 1933)

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Doctors Face Death TRAILING Living Poisons of MYSTERY DISEASES

By Sterling Gleason

ACTING as human guinea pigs in the war on a mysterious disease, three courageous scientists are now working in an isolated laboratory of the United States Public Health Service. Deliberately they have exposed themselves to the bites of mosquitoes suspected of carrying epidemic sleeping sickness (encephalitis) which, at this writing, has gripped nearly a thousand persons in St. Louis. If, as they believe, these insects carry the deadly virus, they will contract a malady for which medical science has no sure remedy.

Whether the three brave experimenters recover and learn the secret of the dread disease, or succumb to a heroic death, the fight they are waging will go on. It is but one phase of a war today being fought on many fronts.

Like sheeted ghosts these masked experimenters work quietly in isolated laboratories, risking death dozens of times daily while handling germs and viruses. When baffling diseases sweep the country in terrifying epidemics, they become leaders of a medical army, military in its stern efficiency and its demand that every member be ready to lay down his life for the cause.

In this warfare, the latest scientific methods of the bacteriologist are weapons. Miniature epidemics, produced in the laboratory, rage for months while workers study symptoms and cures. Germs pass through countless generations in the test tube, live for years in the refrigerator while new races are bred and studied. Black-light microscopes are used to photograph organisms so tiny that for years they have escaped detection.

Such were the methods used in the study of other plagues when the recent sleeping-sickness epidemic broke out. It found medical science without specific means of checking it, for although epidemic encephalitis, one of several forms of the deadly sleeping sickness, has been known to man for 221 years, its germs have never been identified. It is one of a group of diseases caused by filterable viruses—poisons containing either chemical substances of prodigious destructive potency, or else living organisms so minute that they pass through filters that hold back ordinary germs, and are invisible even under the most powerful microscopes.

An alert pathologist detected the existence of encephalitis in St. Louis last July. Authorities, on the watch for additional cases, found an epidemic already in progress. New patients were sent to isolation hospitals and in the medical world, virtual martial law was declared.

Dr. J. P. Leake, senior surgeon

of the U. S. Public Health Service, arrived on the scene. At once he recruited a force of health officers, trained investigators, physicians, nurses, bacteriologists, and laboratory technicians. By long distance telephone he got authority from Washington to purchase monkeys, to be inoculated in the hope of developing a protective serum.

Meanwhile, his medical army studied the history of every case and analyzed sources of milk, water, and food, in an effort to find common avenues of infection. He was joined by Dr. Charles L. L. Williams, Jr., noted authority on disease-bearing insects. The sickness was found eleven times more prevalent in the suburbs. This fact led him to focus attention upon possible insect carriers, .especially those with a proboscis like a hypodermic needle, peculiarly fitted to plunge the virus directly into the bloodstream. These included the mosquito and certain biting flies.

Efforts to induce the disease in monkeys did not bring the hoped-for results. A human subject was needed. Without hesitation, three scientists volunteered and submitted themselves to the stings of mosquitoes that had bitten victims of the disease. As this is written, scientists are anxiously watching the outcome of this phase of the experiment.

Meanwhile the epidemic seems to be abating. If it is checked on the St. Louis battlefront, experimenters will take it into the laboratory, where they will breed the deadly virus for further study. Here they will infect a guinea pig, rabbit, or mouse with the disease. Upon the animal’s death, the brain and spinal cord will be removed, ground up, added to a salt solution, and injected into another animal to perpetuate the epidemic.

Unlike ordinary germs, which can be raised in the incubator for many generations on a little beef broth, the virus ordinarily grows only in living tissue. So small are its organisms or active bodies that the microscope shows nothing of their nature. Dissolving infectious material in a test tube, bacteriologists pump the cloudy solution through a Berkefeld filter—a candle of diatomaceous earth whose pores are so fine they hold back ordinary germs. They obtain a clear, colorless liquid, which under the microscope seems devoid of life. Yet a single drop of this clear fluid has the power of transmitting the disease to animals or men.

Despite their elusiveness and the danger of contracting terrible diseases for which science has no cure, government research workers continue their attack upon the riddle of the virus. Even now, in a secluded laboratory at Pasadena,Calif., Dr. V. M. Hoque and other workers of the U. S. Public Health Service are conducting experiments with psittacosis, the mysterious parrot disease that spreads to man so rapidly that it is classed as one of the most highly contagious diseases known.

At the Hooper Foundation, the University of California’s research laboratory at San Francisco, similar studies are in progress, as well as at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York. So hazardous are they that Dr. Karl F. Meyer, head of the Hooper Foundation, will allow only himself and one assistant to perform work involving actual contact with the birds—even though the assistants flirt with death-dealing germs dozens of times daily in their ordinary work.

The study is a continuation of a courageous battle begun in 1929, when a mysterious epidemic flared across the nation. Simultaneously it sprang up in Paris and other parts of Europe. Symptom of the disease was a fever combined with a lung infection so similar to pneumonia that physicians found it difficult to distinguish it until death had claimed the victim.

Identification of the malady as the deadly parrot disease of the tropics came about purely through chance. An American doctor read about an opera troupe in Argentina, attacked by a strange disease after a performance in which parrots were used. Next day, he happened to notice a sick parrot in the homes of two patients whose ailment he had not been able to diagnose. Scientists traced the malady at once to infected parrots and parrakeets recently imported from South America. Outbreak of the disease in sixteen foreign countries signalled the appearance of a world-wide epidemic.

War immediately was launched against the dread disease in five great laboratories. The highly contagious nature immediately appeared. Sick parrots, brought into the Public Health Service laboratory for study, caused an epidemic in which eleven laboratory workers were stricken, one fatally.

Though they worked in isolated, insect-tight, thoroughly disinfected laboratories, and wore sterilized masks and surgeons’ rubber gloves, experimenters became infected with the malady. Infection came through the nose and throat, when workers breathed virus-laden dust particles from the parrots and their cages— a form of exposure almost impossible to control. But these misfortunes, in the simple words of Surgeon-General Hugh S. Cumming, of the Public Health Service, “only served as an additional incentive to our work.”

Shocked by the spread of the epidemic, the Government imposed a stringent quarantine on all importations of parrots. France and a number of other countries imposed similar embargoes. Private owners, terrified, killed their parrots wholesale. The disease attracted wide publicity when the wife of Senator Borah, of Idaho, contracted it. From their laboratories in Washington, government scientists directed her treatment by telegraph. Meanwhile, Dr. H. E. Haseltine and Dr. Charles Armstrong, distinguished scientists who were themselves recovering from a laboratory infection of psittacosis, gave their blood for a serum. An airplane rushed to Idaho with the precious fluid in time to aid her in a successful fight against the malady.

Once the movement of parrots had been checked by law, the epidemic burned itself out. It flared up again when California, a focal point of the disease, lifted its quarantine and permitted owners of avaries to ship their birds. Immediately fifty new cases, due to California-bred birds, were reported from all parts of the East. The Federal government thereupon permanently prohibited all interstate movement of the birds, except under specific permission of state authorities.

Research for a remedy or immunizing serum is still going on throughout the world. It has been found that chickens as well parrakeets, canaries, and love birds—may contract the disease

Still another deadly disease linked to a filterable virus is poliomyelitis, better known as infantile paralysis, although persons of all ages may contract it. It leaves its victims crippled for life. Like psittacosis, it, too, is a mystery disease —another of the many sinister diseases that come to man in an unknown manner out of the vast disease reservoir of the animal kingdom.

When an epidemic of this terrible paralysis broke out in southern California two years ago and began to spread northward through the state, scientists of the Hooper Foundation went into action. Beatrice Howitt, research worker, aided by Dr. H. E. Thelander and Dr. Edmund Shaw, of the Children’s Hospital, advertised widely for blood from persons who had recovered from the disease. Then she travelled over the state, collecting the blood, which she sterilized and pooled, five or six samples to a group.

This blood was then given to victims of the disease, fifty cubic centimeters at a time. Such blood contains natural antibodies which counteract the virus, and is the only known substance of value in the treatment of the paralysis. More than 140,000 cubic centimeters of the serum were used during another recent epidemic in New York, where 6,000 persons contracted the disease.

When signs of an epidemic appeared in San Luis Obispo, Calif., the local health officer determined to prevent it from gaining a foothold in his city. Going from house to house, he and his workers visited every home, examining each person that was unwell. More than a hundred cases were discovered, many of them in a mild form that otherwise might have gone undetected until too late. Serum was given immediately. As a result, there were no deaths, although elsewhere the disease took toll of many lives.

Knowledge of the mysterious poliomyelitis organism was recently advanced by Dr. Frederick Eberson, of San Francisco, who successfully grew the virus outside the body. The original virus, diluted a million times, was transplanted to a new medium, where it grew and reproduced steadily. Apparently the virus bodies have a surrounding envelope that aids them to adhere and form nests of colonies which in certain stages are visible under the microscope.

Another fascinating drama of courageous research is connected with the name of Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

The work of fighting this disease was largely carried on by Dr. R. R. Spencer, of the United States Public Health Service. For a long period of time he worked with the disease daily, handling germ cultures so deadly they claimed the lives of four laboratory workers. Tedious and baffling were the experiments, for the germ eluded discovery ; but at length Dr. Spencer succeeded in developing a vaccine with which he was able to immunize guinea pigs and monkeys.

Now he was ready to try it upon a human subject. Making a culture from ground-up infected wood ticks, he inoculated himself by taking the virus directly into his own blood. Then, as the disease began to make its appearance, he gave himself the protective vaccine.

The remedy proved its worth. Dr. Spencer recovered without serious consequence. Since then, more than 40,000 people have been protected by the vaccine.

To probe the riddle of the virus, the ultraviolet microscope is being used. Invisible rays of black light register upon photographic plates details too small to be seen otherwise. Two British experimenters recently thus succeeded in finding a previously invisible organism connected with the mysterious Borna disease, a sickness of horses.

It is known, however, that bacteria produce a mysterious chemical which rapidly spreads in body tissues to break down natural resistance against disease, paving the way for germs and their infection. Recently a synthetic chemical with similar properties has been produced at the Rockefeller Institute and given the imposing title of p-diazo-benzol-sulfonic acid. Injected into the skin, with a little India ink dissolved in it as a marker, the acid spreads with astonishing rapidity, covering as much as a square foot under the skin. Some such discovery may one day enable experimenters to penetrate the secret of the filterable virus.

  1. Sleestak says: February 13, 200711:52 am

    I had to look twice. I thought that guy with the birds was Bozo the Clown at first glance.

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