IN 1993, physically fit Navaho Indians began...


IN 1993, physically fit Navaho Indians began dying from mysterious cases of an illness resembling pneumonia or flu. With the help of Navaho medicine men, health authorities were able to pin the blame on a rural deer mouse native to most of North America. In an article on the resurgence of infectious diseases around the world, Anne Platt, a research associate at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C., calls for more awareness of the connections between disease and disruptions in the environment:

"When we begin routinely to take health impacts of our industries and societies into account, the outbreaks of disease that now shock us won't seem so puzzling. When the Hanta virus broke out in Arizona, for example, it was not as mystifying to some of the Navajo medicine men, whose traditions had taught them to see the interconnectedness of all living things, as it was to the medical specialists and the media.

"The scientists, alerted that deer mice were carrying the problem, tested the mice and were able to identify the exact culprit. But they failed to notice that it was the environment that was changing, not the pathogens.

"The Navajo medicine men meanwhile observed that prior to the outbreak, snow melt cascading down to the valley desert below, combined with a spring of heavy rains, had reminded some of their elders of the years 1918 and 1933, when there had been similarly unpredictable weather. In each of those years, there had been a disease. In each of those years, pinon trees produced an abundance of pine nuts. Mice had descended on the extraordinary harvest and reproduced ten-fold in one season. The rains had then forced the mice out of the flooded burrows to scurry about above ground, looking for food and shelter and increasing their exposure to humans. Disease was what happened when the balance of life was upset."

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