Mutants Invisibly Running Rampant…

In class we discussed the contagion narrative: this narrative starts with an origin and spreads rapidly [or thought to be rapid spreading] through human bodies.  As Cathy described, it is like a Disney Movie:  Villain and the “bad disease” [in this case the poisoned apple]: Wicked Queen in Snow White, the hero a.k.a the handsome prince to kiss her and bring her back to life, and the victim: Snow White. 


However, the thing missing in these Disney movies is the mass hysteria.  Sure Snow White flees her home and runs into the woods and hides away from the wicked queen but she’s one person [that everyone loves]. 

A little fact: in the United States there have been 12 major epidemics since 1793: including yellow fever, cholera, H1N1, Spanish Influenza, polio, and AIDS.  
                  List from:
That is just one list though: on this list there is probably close to 50 epidemics:

Question: What defines an epidemic?  Epidemic: an outbreak of a disease that spreads more quickly and more extensively among a group of people than would normally be expected.  In old days, something as simple as a cough could be thrown under the definition epidemic.   According to the CDC, the term has had to evolve along with the types of diseases and really took its current meaning in the Middle Ages [1].  Is there a defining number before something turns into an epidemic: how many people must be infected [2,5,10,100, 50000]?

I want to turn to the E-Coli epidemic happening today in Europe.  I turn to CBS for their news article on this horrific outbreak of E Coli: E Coli Outbreak: CBS News Story
First we talked about this idea of an origin: the first paragraph in this article discusses how sad it will be that European officials and scientists might never be able to find the origin.  Time for a snide comment: Why worry about the origin then if you think you’ll never find it? Worry about getting the people sick better!!! So onto the villian now. People who got sick with the E Coli bateria have all had the eating of vegetables in common: however, scientists have not been able to find the E Coli bacteria in any of the vegetables they have been testing. So with this narrative we have a very sneaky villian [this villian is incognito].  Clearly, the bad disease is E Coli.  17 people have died and 470 are experiencing kidney failure which is rare and 1500 have fallen ill with the bacterial disease.  And while this narrative is in its beginning stages of developments we lay our hopes on the government, scientists, and hospital physicians to be the heroes [by finding the disease, fighting the disease, and making those already ill feel better]. 

But I want to turn to another point in this article.  470 people are experiencing kidney failures. This high number of patients with kidney failure is leading scientists to believe that the strain of E Coli has evolved with the changing times and mutated to something worse.  “The bacteria being investigated is one of the few dangerous types among the hundreds of different E. coli bugs. People and animals carry various E. coli in their intestines. But only a very small percentage are deadly” (CBS Article).

E Coli does not discriminate though: it does not attack only Europeans (specifically Germans [Germany is the center of the outbreak]). America has also had epidemics with  E Coli.  An article says that roughly 20,000 people in America get sick with E Coli bacteria and another 500 die from it every year.  Now this article was from 1996.  Our E Coli breakout at this time came from the beef industry and cows.  We now know to cook our meats at a certain temperature and to never eat it raw to prevent getting the E Coli Disease.  In 2006, we had another epidemic involving E Coli being transmitted through spinach: 3 died and 205 total became sick.

With these cases of E Coli they all fit the contagion narrative we’ve discussed in class with Wald.  Origin, villian, bad disease, victim[s], hero.   I think it’s interesting how well the stories of these epidemics fit the contagion narrative but that’s probably why the narrative was created and is used. 

****Here is a fact sheet provided by the Department of Health on what E Coli is and how it makes people feel, et cetera.



This entry was posted in Blog. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Mutants Invisibly Running Rampant…

  1. Victoria Heverley says:

    As the ignorant-of-anything-in-the-news college student I am, I am learning most of this information for the first time. Really nice choice in article though, it did a terrific job in bringing me up to speed. Further, your analysis was clear and really helped me to get a handle on the way this is being talked about.

    That being said, I had some thoughts (more like questions actually) while I was taking all of this in. According to my research, Germany has a population of over 81,400,000 . So the fact that 1,500 have fallen ill and 17 have died seems kind of miniscule in relation to the population. I’m not implying that those lives don’t matter, but I think this leads directly back to your question: What number is required to declare an epidemic? And why isn’t substandard living considered an epidemic, because I feel as though more lives (percentage wise) are lost in that issue that this E. coli outbreak.

    Further I am left to wonder how much of the rhetoric is imbricated in race, sexuality, class, etc also? For instance, the concept of cooking beef to a certain temperature before eating it. I have no academic standing to back this up, but I have heard many times that the human body is perfectly capable of digesting certain kinds of raw meat. Further, as a former server, I consciously noticed that there were always certain bodies that got their burgers/steaks well done, and these were black bodies or bodies that I perceived as being lower income. The funny thing is, when I would ask “how would you like that prepared?” those same bodies would react stronger than the person who simply would answer “medium” or “medium rare please.” It was always a definite “OH WELL DONE! I don’t want any blood in there at all!” Thus the speak of contagious blood again. Oddly enough, I noticed this reaction from my own childhood. We were never asked how we wanted our meat cooked – it came well done because my mother would warn me of the health risks. And, (coincedence or not?) it was during a time in my life that our family was what I consider poor and partially supported by welfare.

    So, I grew up afraid of undercooked meat. However, now that I get to pick my own preference, I like my steaks done medium-rare. Are poorer people forced into buying lesser quality meat that is less safe? Or is it something else fueling these ideas? I know that I never heard of anyone I served a rare steak or burger to getting sick afterward, which I am SURE would have been made public about the dangers of eating at the restaurant I worked at.

    So, I guess what I am getting at with all of this is, how much can we really trust in this E. coli “epidemic?” Such a small number of people are affected, and as you point out, the discourse follows our recognizable pattern with villain, victim, and heroes in sight. Is the news coverage a scare tactic? Is there something deeper that I am missing that reestablishes current power structures? Could it be that we simply needed some news time to fill (remember the huge amount of news coverage on Chandra Levy – that is until 9/11 occurred after which everyone forgot about her). Or, am I simply a slave to my own ignorance and missing the epidemic that is truly occurring. Any thoughts anyone!? I am really curious to know what others think about this.

  2. Victoria Heverley says: – the link to the source of the population stat I use : )

Comments are closed.