Arno Karlen has written Biography of a Germ about borrelia burgdorferi, because its story helps to answer the question: How come so many strange new diseases seem to be appearing out of nowhere? CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Martha Teichner reports.
"Borrelia burgdorferi has an ancient lineage, far older than ours, and despite all the vaccines and antibiotics we devise, it has a more promising future," according to Karlen's book. "It preceded people and will doubtless survive us. For that reason alone, it deserves respectful biographers."
Something called an arenavirus has just made its appearance in the United States, killing three people in California.
Last summer, West Nile virus, which is transmitted by mosquitoes, put New York City in a panic. Public health officials realized that hundreds of birds, dropping out of the sky and dying, had the same disease as a growing number of people reporting mysterious flu-like symptoms, high fevers and even paralysis.
A total of 62 people were hospitalized. Seven died.
Ignoring environmental concerns, the city began extensive insecticide spraying, hoping to contain the disease. But scientists couldn't help but wonder whether the West Nile virus would survive the winter.
The answer, we now know, is yes.
Dr. Ward B. Stone, New York State's wildlife pathologist, sees the disease spreading as far and as fast as birds fly. He believes it is only a matter of time before the West Nile virus is all over the continent.
And Dr. Stone and his staff are swamped. Every couple of hours, a UPS truck shows up at their lab outside Albany loaded with picnic coolers containing dead birds, mostly crows and blue jays. Dead birds are arriving at a rate of more than 500 a day.
Each time the West Nile virus is the cause of death, and sd another bird species is affected, Dr. Stone becomes more alarmed. He worries that the bald eagle, the U.S. national symbol, could be wiped out.
So far this summer, only three people have been diagnosed with the disease. No one has died.
How did the West Nile virus get so far? It was first discovered in Uganda in 1937. Scientists speculate it reached the United States by airplane, thanks to a stowaway mosquito with the virus, or even an infected passenger. Every year, more than 2 million people fly into New York from places where the West Nile virus is found.
Says Karlen, "Look. Before you had modern transport, no epidemic could move faster than a person could walk."
Ask Karlen why there are so many new, scary diseases, and he'll tell you: It's how we live. This is what happens when we mess with Mother Nature, disturbing the live-and-let-live ruce a germ and the animal it occupies have worked out over tens of thousands of years.
"Because of our technology, or a change in our lifestyle, now suddenly we're exposed to it, and it becomes a human epidemic," he explains. "Because it's new to us, we don't have defenses."
"When any host meets a germ that it isn't accustomed to, the result is really an acute infection, and that's what we get with Lyme disease, borrelia burgdorferi," he adds.
That's why a deer that's carrying Lyme disease won't get sick with it. But you probably will. Last year, about 16,000 cases of Lyme disease were diagnosed across the United States. The number keeps going up.
Block Island, a busy summer resort off the coast of Rhode Island, is one of the United States' Lyme disease hot spots and a classic example of how messing with Mother Nature can make people sick.
It began when deer were brought to the island in 1967, because residents believed hunting would be good for the economy.
Soon after Dr. Peter Brassard arrived in the mid-'80s, he started seeing patients with what turned out to be Lyme disease.
"It was a gold mine of research," says Dr. Brassard. "Look. I got an island with a moat around it."
"I was the only doctor, and they couldn't go anywhere else," he says.
Block Island proved to be the perfect laboratory. Posters caution hikers to check for the tiny deer tick, no bigger than a poppy seed, that spreads the disease.
In a referendum four years ago, Block Islanders voted 3-to-1 for a drastic reduction of the herd. Many would like the island's deer eliminated altogether.
Town council members are constantly reminded of campaign promises to undo what was done by bringing deer to the island.
"When you change an ecosystem," explains Karlen, "you are going to have more changes than you anticipate," he says. "Be ready for surprises."
Surprises like Lyme disease and West Nile virus, which stalk humans faster than modern medicine can cope.
Karlen notes, "The ability to cure or prevent many diseases has provoked fantasies of life without infection, a glistening sterile future from which microbes had vanished."
So we remain permanently vulnerable to that next new disease.
"One thing lingers on the horizon, and it's nasty," according to Karlen. "There are good reasons to expect that somewhere in the vaguely foreseeable future, whether it's 10 or 50 or 100 years, we are very possibly going to have one enormous and very lethal epidemic."
"It's very possible that it will be a germ we don't even know yet," he says.
"It's out there. It hasn't met us yet," he adds.
We can peer at a pond and look for danger or beauty. We can marvel at the millions of microorganisms that exist there.
As Karlen writes: "Only a small minority can make us sick, and most of those die trying."
"Pathogens lack maice," he continues. "They are just trying to survive, and sometimes they must do so at other creatures' expense."
"The same could be said of humans," he adds.