Plagues worse than imagined

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 August, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 August, 1998, 12:00am

God is in heaven, listening to a presentation from the chairangel of the Great Plagues Department. After a few minutes, He interrupts, failing to hide a trace of peevishness: 'Yes, yes, Gabby, but have you done anything really original in the last millennium or two? Remember that great stuff you used to do, you know, plagues of boils and rats and so on, back in Egypt in the old days? I think you've let your creativity and sense of drama slip a bit.' 'With all due respect, I hardly think that's fair,' replies Gabriel in a wounded tone. 'We made sex fatal in the 1980s.' God nods slowly. 'Ye-es, I guess AIDS was reasonably dramatic. But have you done anything post-modernist, anything with a bit of irony, a sense of humour?' 'We did Mad Cow Disease in the UK earlier this decade, and Killer Chicken Flu in Hong Kong last year. They both caused widespread panics and inspired comedians around the world, but killed hardly anyone.' 'That's true. I'd forgotten those,' admits the Almighty. 'Very well, carry on then, Archangel.' You might think humanity is having a seriously bad time at the moment, what with microbial plagues running loose worldwide, and threats from enterovirus 71 and the Coxsackie virus here in Hong Kong. But the truth is the world in general, and Hong Kong in particular, have always had to put up with vast numbers of strange diseases.

The greatest world plague in history started in Asia in 1332. Millions of people died from the Black Death, or bubonic plague, in China and India. In those days, there was very little international travel, and it took 15 years for the germs to hitchhike their way to Europe. Between 1347 and 1351, an estimated 75 million people died in Europe from the holidaying bacteria.

Other nasty ailments have done tours. Casual sex first became potentially fatal in 1495 when an epidemic of syphilis did an overland trail across Europe. In 1889 and 1890, 40 per cent of the world's population came down with flu.

Kleenex had not been invented, so you had to be careful where you trod. And can you imagine the deafening chorus of sniffing that went on in every country? Flu deaths eventually ran into millions.

In 1894, the Black Death came to Hong Kong from China. The government ordered the sick to be sent to hospital. Unfortunately, the lack of trust between the government and the people caused problems. Local people decided to hide sick members of their families, convinced Western doctors were dangerous practitioners who had no idea what they were doing.

They were right, of course. But the Western doctors at least cured a few of their patients. Their Chinese counterparts failed completely. Their theory was the plague lived under the earth. When the weather was dry, cracks appeared in the ground, and an invisible deadly force sneaked out to grab human passers-by.

When the hidden relatives finally died, they were put out with the garbage. Every day, 100 dead bodies piled up in the streets of Hong Kong. Being a dustman was not a fun job in 1894.

There was a mass exodus of Hong Kong people back to China. At the China Sugar Factory, 300 workers abandoned their positions to return home to Shantou, 290 kilometres up the coast. High-speed ferries not having been invented, they walked.

But it was scientists in Hong Kong and Macau who made the discoveries that eventually led to the Black Death being almost wiped out in the world. Dr Gomes da Silva, a highly observant medical man living in Macau, noted the disease occurred in rats and humans, two species considered biologically dissimilar (with the exception of certain unpopular individuals such as former governor Sir John Davis).

A Hong Kong scientist named Alexandre Yersin found the bacillus which was the direct cause of the plague, and a Hong Kong civil servant named W.J. Simpson suggested rats could be carrying the fatal germ. But plague victims were found to have no rat bites, only flea bites, so the Hong Kong specialists were stumped.

Governor Sir Henry Blake offered two Hong Kong cents for every dead rat handed in. A suspiciously large number of rats - some 45,000 - were deposited. The scheme was halted when he discovered the British administration had been tricked into buying China's rat population.

The findings of the Hong Kong scientists were sent to researchers in India who worked out in 1905 that the Black Death went from rats via fleas to humans. Armed with this information, scientists tamed the disease.

One of the most odd diseases to hit this part of the world was suk-yeung, known in English as koro, derived from the Malay word kura-kura, which means turtle.

This is a terrifying disease which, to put it politely, causes a man's most private appendage to shrink to the extent it becomes almost invisible and quite useless. The symptoms of koro have been recorded in Chinese texts hundreds of years old, and there was an east Asian outbreak in the 1960s. Although there have only been individual cases in Hong Kong, sizeable outbreaks have been recorded in Hainan, Guangdong, Thailand, India and Singapore.

It was originally believed to have been caused by eating pork, but doctors now realise it is entirely psychosomatic. The more nervous a man becomes, the more his appendage withdraws. The application of clamps and string only causes further shrinkage.

What next? The huge amount of antibiotics indiscriminately dispensed in today's Asia means it is likely new strange diseases will evolve.

Will any be more bizarre than Killer Chicken Flu? That remains to be seen. The creative brains in heaven's Great Plague Department appear to be on a roll these days.