The modern Typhoid Mary threat


It seems to me that the learning curve associated with the coronavirus is extraordinarily steep, that is, we are discovering more and more about this scourge that is sweeping the world.

Some of this information, such as the development of a vaccine, is coming from controlled, scientific work, but other is coming from what is known as “anecdotal evidence,” which is based on reports and stories rather than scientific sources.

Among this body of data is the emerging concern about the threat of a modern “Typhoid Mary” characteristic of the virus. To understand and appreciate this situation, a bit of background and history of the term, “Typhoid Mary” is necessary so here goes.

Typhoid fever, also known simply as typhoid, is a bacterial infection caused by a specific type of salmonella that causes symptoms that may include fever, abdominal pain, headache, and rash that, if left untreated, may last for weeks with a death rate of up to 20 percent. Typhoid is spread only by eating or drinking food or water contaminated with the feces of an infected person, which means that risk factors include poor sanitation and poor hygiene. Despite effective vaccines and improved sanitation, typhoid is still a threat. The World Health Organization reports typhoid fever caused an estimated 21.7 million illnesses and 217,000 deaths in 2000. In the United States, about 400 cases occur each year, and 75 percent of these are acquired while traveling internationally.

OK, enough about typhoid, what about “Mary?”

Mary Mallon was born in 1869 in Ireland and emigrated to the US in 1884. She had worked in a variety of domestic positions for wealthy families prior to settling into her career as a cook in the New York area. She, however, was a healthy “carrier” of the salmonella bacteria, that is, she had only mild symptoms herself but infected a number of families for which she worked. In 1907 about 3,000 New Yorkers had been infected by typhoid and Mary was frequently accused of being the source of contact for hundreds of the ill. Her nickname of “Typhoid Mary” had become synonymous with the spread of disease because many were infected due to her denial of being ill. In an age before antibiotics, she couldn’t be cured, so a dangerous source like Mary had to be restrained. She was forced into quarantine on two separate occasions on North Brother Island for a total of 26 years.

So that’s a short version of the “Typhoid Mary” story.

OK, a bit interesting, but that was then and this is now. Well, reports are surfacing that “carriers” may be spreading the COVID-19 virus much the same as Typhoid Mary did with typhoid. These carriers are infected with the virus, showing little if any symptoms but can and do spread the disease. One well-publicized report by the Center for Disease Control details how a 13-year-old girl gave COVID-19 to 11 other people across four states during a three-week family gathering involving five households.

The teenager had been exposed to the virus away from home in June and four days later she tested negative for COVID-19, so the family traveled to the gathering with 15 other relatives. Two days later she began experiencing her only COVID-19 symptom — nasal congestion. Of the 14 staying at the house, a total of 12 of them got the COVID-19 virus — which was definitely traced to the girl.

This case points out that before symptoms begin, infected people can spread significant amounts of the virus and infect others. However, some infected persons never develop symptoms but still spread the virus. These infected folks without symptoms look and feel like their usual selves and are likely to be out in public conducting business as usual in situations where they might transmit the virus to others. That’s what comes to mind when I see folks — both employees and customers in stores, particularly “convenience” stores — without masks and disregarding “social distancing.” It’s like, “Who cares about that crap?”

Well, I don’t want to be an alarmist, but the way this situation is shaping up, we may well be facing a reasonable possibility that undetected, stealth carriers of the virus are helping cause the increase in cases. Yep, any of us could be infected right now and not know it — an unwitting modern Typhoid Mary. As for us, we are trying to follow the experts’ guidelines by participating in social distancing, washing our hands frequently, wearing a face mask in public places, and avoiding large groups. Until they come up with a vaccine, we figure it’s the best we can do to protect ourselves.

At least that’s how it seems to me.

Bill Taylor

Bill Taylor, a regular contributing columnist and local area resident, may be contacted at [email protected].

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