Coexisting with viruses

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Coexisting with viruses

I recently contracted shingles. A notable symptom of the disease with the gloomy-sounding name is extreme pain. Some compare it to childbirth or circumcision. The acute, burning pain comes and goes.

Shingles are caused by the varicella zoster virus. In most cases, the virus is contracted in childhood. If it’s not eliminated from the body, it can come back later on. It spreads years after when the body’s immune system is vulnerable. I had chickenpox when I was in elementary school, so the virus stayed inactive in my body for nearly 40 years. I was impressed by its patience.

One of the medical staff members sent to Sierra Leone in West Africa is quarantined in Germany now. The worker was exposed to the Ebola virus while treating a patient. When the patient made a sudden movement, the needle on a blood-filled syringe punctured the worker’s plastic gloves and touched their finger. It will take as long as 21 days to confirm whether the medical worker has contracted the virus. Ebola is one of the deadliest viruses to humans, with a fatality rate of 70 percent.

Farms are also troubled with the spread of foot-and-mouth disease among pigs and cows. The virus that causes foot-and-mouth disease only lives in animals with two hoofs, and it is especially worrying because it is airborne.

During the outbreak four years ago, I visited the National Veterinarian Institute of Denmark to meet Prof. Graham Belsham, an internationally renowned scholar. He said that the virus could have come from North Korea, as it could travel hundreds of kilometers in the wind. It was a plausible theory since the outbreak coincided with the season of the northern wind. If the virus could travel with the wind, North Korea’s food-and-mouth disease outbreak may have originated from China or Mongolia. It is impossible to fundamentally control the virus without cooperation among countries in the region.

Viruses have been tormenting mankind just as much as wars, famine and bacteria. The Spanish flu, the pandemic that spread around the world in 1918 and 1919, killed more than 25 million people. It is estimated that 140,000 Koreans died from the disease. Koreans call it the “Flu in the Year of the Horse.”

Humanity has been fighting against viruses by developing vaccines and anti-viral treatments, but the only virus that we have conquered is smallpox. Viruses can remain inactive for decades and can travel across borders, so conquering viruses may be impossible after all. The coexistence of another life form and a being somewhere between the living and the nonliving is a terrifying possibility.

*The author is a deputy national news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo. JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 8, Page 35


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