It's boom time for bugs. Nasty, microbial, hungry bugs.
The mass media are crawling with them. Our daily menu of reading and viewing is infested with stories about cholera, drug resistant tuberculosis and malaria, E. coli, encephalitis, Lyme disease, hantavirus, pneumonic plague, influenza, not to mention AIDS.
Not too long ago, our national nightmare was nuclear holocaust. As that threat receded, the killer bugs returned just in time to fill the anxiety void. Turns out penicillin didn't wipe them out. The bugs were just rolling over and playing dead. Now they're back tTC and badder than ever.
In September, Time magazine trumpeted their arrival with a cover story on "Revenge of the Killer Microbes."
You want scary? Read "The Hot Zone," the best-selling, nonfictional account about Ebola, a ghastly virus that threatened to turn residents of Reston, Va., into human goop.
Earlier this year a deadly form of streptococcus inspired sensational headlines across the world. "Killer Bug Ate My Face," one British tabloid screamed.
Last year, an outbreak of the rodent-borne hantavirus, first in the Southwest and then around the country, wreaked havoc in emergency rooms where every "flu-like symptom" was considered fatal by panicking parents.
Make-believe bugs are also stoking the public's paranoia (and love of a good horror story). Stephen King's television epic, "The Stand," a recent "M.A.N.T.I.S." television episode, and the coming film, "Outbreak," all pit man against microbe.
In a literary vein dating at least to the fifth century B.C., when Greek historian Thucydides chronicled a plague in "History of the Peloponnesian War," a slew of new, non-fiction books reckon less hysterically with microbial predators.
Is the prognosis that bad? Will we in fact succumb to a kind of "Andromeda Strain," the mega-microbe envisioned in Michael Crichton's medical thriller? Or has the threat been exaggerated?
Undoubtedly, wonder drugs have not, as once thought, vanquished certain virulent infectious diseases. In fact, once touted cures have inadvertently spawned resistant strains of tuberculosis and other scourges.
Medical researchers, scholars and social critics agree there is ample reason to be alarmed, but caution that life as we know it is not threatened - as it was when the Black Death ravaged 14th-century Europe.
The key to coping with infectious diseases "is to balance urgency and restraint," says Christopher H. Foreman Jr., a Brookings Institution senior fellow and author of "Plagues Products & Politics: Emergent Public Health Hazards and National Policymaking."
Mr. Foreman takes seriously the threat of AIDS and other epidemics, but puts them in perspective. "Those accounts are indeed scary, but what is the prospect for anyone of us 250 million people in the United States to come in contact with Ebola virus?"
Concentrate on more mundane - and more prevalent - perils, he advises: "Buckle up. Don't drink and drive. Eat sensibly. Exercise and think about Ebola when you go to the movie."
Still, we must heed lessons learned from a disastrous complacency, says Laurie Garrett, author of "The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World out of Balance," published last month.
"It's very rational and proper that people should be worried and concerned," she says. "We as human beings . . . became quite arrogant that the weapons that we had at hand virtually eliminated the risk in our lives of infectious diseases," Ms. Garrett says. (The worldwide flu epidemic of 1918-19 in which 20 million people died was the United States' last experience with massive devastation.)
Her observations are supported by numerous studies, including a widely quoted 1991 report by the Institute of Medicine warning that our public health system is not equipped to cope with emerging infectious diseases.
Given that backdrop, Richard Preston's gruesome descriptions of death by Ebola in "The Hot Zone" are scary indeed.
"The Hot Zone," published last month as well, describes a close encounter with Ebola at a Reston facility, where quarantined lab monkeys begin to die of the lethal virus. Nothing ultimately happens. Though Ebola has laid waste to entire African villages in a matter of days, the strain that reaches the Washington suburbs apparently doesn't infect humans.
But that hasn't kept the book, an intriguing blend of serious journalism and entertainment, from enjoying a wave of publicity across the cultural spectrum. "The Hot Zone" has been touted everywhere from the New York Times to People magazine, where Mr. Preston is pictured in a gas mask, infant son on lap.
Mr. Preston insists the hype associated with the book does not detract from its purpose as a humbling reminder that humans are not immune to nature's capacity for violence. Somewhere, somehow, the natural world will seek retribution for human folly, he says.
"In a sense, the earth is mounting an immune response against the human species," he theorizes in the book. "It is beginning to react to the human parasite, the flooding infection of people, the dead spots of concrete all over the planet, the cancerous rot-outs in Europe, Japan, and the United States, thick with replicating primates, the colonies enlarging and spreading and threatening to shock the biosphere with mass extinctions."
Although parts of his book are admittedly terrifying, fear-mongering is not his intent, Mr. Preston says.
The fear of infectious diseases - fanned by sensational headlines and graphic stories - can have disastrous effects, Ms. Garrett says.
She points to the outbreak of pneumonic plague in India, where 500,000 panicked residents of Surat fled their city in two days. India's stock market crashed after the Persian Gulf shut down all trade.
"There's no way an apple shipped from Bombay to Oman was going to give anyone the plague," says Ms. Garrett, a health reporter for Newsday who covered the outbreak. "This was a hysterical reaction . . . We're supposed to be smarter than that."
Besides, defensive actions against the afflicted are futile, she says. "The issue is the microbe. You have to ask yourself, what will it take to control this microbe? It usually has little to do with restraining the human being."
On the other hand, some fear may have the positive effect of forcing "the public to be aware of threats that are out there," says Terrie Taylor, a malaria researcher and assistant professor of internal medicine at Michigan State University.
"It's very difficult to get funding, unless there's some sense of urgency about it," she says. "Researchers like me have to hold up the specter of malaria in America to raise money . . . [Public health maintenance] is not as gripping as the drama of bringing an outbreak into control. That's why I think a positive spinoff from all this hysteria is an appreciation of just how good our public health system really is."