Emerging Infectious Diseases: Background information when reading Wilder Girls

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Wilder Girls

by Rory Power

Wilder Girls by Rory Power X
Wilder Girls by Rory Power
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2019, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2020, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Michelle Anya Anjirbag
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About this Book

Emerging Infectious Diseases

This article relates to Wilder Girls

Print Review

Image of anthrax bacterium under a microscopeIn Rory Powers' debut novel Wilder Girls, the students at the Raxter School for Girls are suffering from a mysterious illness called "the Tox," but other than knowing what the effects are and that some people from the outside world are working on trying to help them, they have no idea what is causing it, or what it even is.

How real is the possibility of a mystery disease affecting a portion of the world in this day and age? It turns out, new viruses are appearing all the time. Existing viruses mutate; antibiotic resistance is a growing concern; new advances in identifying diseases are made; and there is even a concern that climate change, in particular the melting permafrost, will reintroduce viruses that have been dormant for millennia.

A 2007 World Health Organization report warned against a more rapid increase in emerging infectious diseases since the late 1960s, including SARS, MERS, Ebola, chikungunya, avian flu, swine flu and Zika. The Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) defines emerging infectious diseases as "infections that have recently appeared within a population or those whose incidence or geographic range is rapidly increasing or threatens to increase in the near future." They can be caused by formerly undetected or unknown infectious agents, known agents that have spread to new locations or populations, the reemergence of agents that had declined in the past, pathogen evolution, or known agents whose role in diseases was not initially understood. There is also a risk of new diseases being spread through bioterrorism agents, and as a result of increased population density and people traveling greater distances and at an increased rate.

Other patterns of human behavior have contributed to the reemergence of infectious diseases as well. Antimicrobial resistance, which can be linked to the misuse or overuse of antibiotics, and the decline in vaccine coverage – most notably connected to misplaced and erroneous fears based on bad studies that linked vaccines to autism – are a growing concern. The decline in vaccinations has led to the recurrence of the spread of measles in the United States. Though measles is not generally fatal, it can cause dangerous complications, such as blindness or encephalitis, as well as immune suppression, leaving the afflicted vulnerable to the contraction of other infections.

Another human behavior-based issue involves climate change, which has caused the melting of permafrost and the expansion of mosquitoes, ticks and other pests into areas they previously would not have been found as the climate warms. The concern with melting permafrost is that the thaw could release viruses that have been frozen for ages; in 2005 NASA scientists successfully revived frozen bacteria that had been trapped under the ice of an Alaskan pond for 32,000 years. These scientists warn that, because these viruses have been dormant for so long, the human immune system may not be prepared to fight them.

It remains to be seen how much climate change may contribute to the spread of new infectious diseases. What is clear, however, is that the idea of a mystery pandemic is a brilliant impetus for a narrative, one that is increasingly relevant to contemporary life.

Anthrax bacterium, courtesy of Infection Landscapes

Filed under Medicine, Science and Tech

This "beyond the book article" relates to Wilder Girls. It originally ran in August 2019 and has been updated for the June 2020 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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