Book provides rich history on prominent diseases

Elby Adamson

By A Contributor

Charles H. Calisher has compiled an incredible collection that provides a history of research in virology and other fields related to epidemiology.

While the stories about how scientists have discovered knowledge of the molecular structure of viruses, the development of vaccines and methods for identifying an ever-increasing number of infective agents will be most appreciated by readers with a strong background in the biological sciences, laymen can also grasp the importance of this research and appreciate Calisher’s personal descriptions of researchers and his subtle humor.

Calisher may be the only individual on the planet who could have written such an account. He is a senior virologist whose experiences have spanned more than 50 years and covered most of the earth.

He has been involved personally with many of the hundreds of scientists mentioned in the book. Calisher served for 27 years as Chief of the Arbovirus Reference Branch of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia and later at the CDC facility at Colorado State University as well as with the World Health Organization. Calisher is retired and lives in Colorado.

Among the researchers Calisher praises for work in virology is Stephen Higgs, now the Director of the Biosecurity Research Institute at Kansas State University.

Much of the research cited in Lifting the Impenetrable Veil concerns a class of viruses known as “arboviruses,” (arthropod-borne viruses). These viruses are transmitted between vertebrates subject to infection and joint-legged insects like mosquitoes, and arachnids such as ticks that feed on blood. Transmission of the viruses is by “biological transmission,” that is the viruses “replicate in the arthropod host” rather than being “mechanically” introduced. 

However, it has been discovered that arbovirus transmission is often intertwined with “socio-cultural and environmental” aspects of an infected population. This has made identification, treatment and eradication of these diseases far more complex than might be thought.

A reader may ask, “Why should I care about virology, especially about rare diseases that occur in some remote part of the world?”

Calisher points out the need for scientists in the United States to work with those of other nations because a disease outbreak given modern transportation systems can literally span the globe in a matter of hours.

An emerging disease that yesterday was wreaking havoc in sub-Saharan Africa may tomorrow be impacting the public health system of the U.S. and bringing economic chaos.

Consider the unproven theory the West Nile virus came to New York via a mosquito that was aboard an airliner.

In this scenario the mosquito left the plane, fed on a local bird and began an epidemic.  Fortunately, West Nile has a low fatality incidence.

Of more concern is dengue and dengue hemorrhagic fever.  About 900,000 cases were reported between 2000 and 2005.  But the “number of dengue and dengue hemorrhagic fever cases appears to be doubling each 10 years.”

In the latest reports the figures nearly doubled in only five years.

The World Health Organization estimates that 50 million people get dengue yearly and that perhaps 500,000 children are hospitalized with dengue hemorrhagic fever of which 12,500 die.  Without appropriate medical care, fatal cases of dengue hemorrhagic fever may exceed 20 percent, Calisher says.

He goes on to say, ” Global climate change may bring about an increase of this disaster . . . It is clear that unless we find a way to control or reduce the prevalence of this disease, the situation may soon become even more appalling.

There is more work for arbovirologists than ever before.”

Calisher makes clear “arboviral threats to the United States cannot be anticipated and the international research can be equated with United States biodefense.”

Worried about Ebola and other exotic and often fatal diseases becoming a problem here?

Maybe you should be, but be thankful for the virus researchers who often risk their own lives to advance our knowledge of these pathogens.

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