Category: Medicine

Politics of Contagion

Hey guys!

I’m rather ashamed I’m putting up a post after the conveners have already done their job for the next book, but I promise I have been filling my weekend with constructive, sort-of-course-related activities! By this I mean I went to see “Every Last Child” this morning, the documentary that Professor Waterman told us was being screened for free this weekend. The documentary is about polio in Pakistan, and the struggle to immunize children and protect them amidst so much political distrust and violence. As we were exiting the theater, Abhi (who was with me) made an interesting remark: while people perceive India and Pakistan to be quite similar, the obstacles standing in the way of healthcare were very different.

For example, in Animal’s People the Khaufpuris of India struggle against a foreign “Kampani” that had poisoned them with its chemical factory. The blame doesn’t lie solely with the Kampani, but also with the corrupt government of Khaufpur, which is perfectly willing to make deals with the Kampani at the expense of its people. With the government continuously letting them down, and the Kampani refusing to clean up its factory that still poisons the town, it is of little surprise that the Khaufpuris mistrust the West. For this reason they turn down desperately needed offers of healthcare and medicine from Elli because she is associated with “Amrika.”

The Khaufpuris have someone to blame for the chemical contamination of their water and people, but in “Every Last Child” polio is a disease native to the land (or, rather, the water). The struggle is with the issue of vaccination, since the Taliban had imposed a ban on vaccination. As a result, polio workers were frequently attacked while on the job. Politician Imran Khan makes an appearance, when his party PTI decides to back a health campaign euphemistically called “Justice for Health,” since the mention of polio alienates many.

The entanglement of politics and healthcare is central to both Animal’s People and “Every Last Child,” yet they occur in different ways. The authorities in “Every Last Child” are eager to find a solution and immunize the children of Pakistan, but they are hindered by the Taliban. In addition, there are certain members of the population who fear anything related to the West, and find it odd that the same country sponsoring the immunization program to save their children is also the one dropping the drones that kill them. While there is a similar distrust of the West in Animal’s People, the political framework is very different and worth considering. Maybe I’m saying that as a result of observing how the recent tensions in Student Government have elicited various heated opinions. Yet politics dictates many of the characters’ ideals and behaviours and an analysis of the larger political climate might lead to some interesting discoveries about our characters.

Happy Reading (of Nemesis, sorry again about the lateness)!


AIDS in China: Blood debts

I found this really interesting article on The Economist about China’s biggest health scandal: the AIDS Scandal. I feel that it’s written very much from the western perspective. However, it provides a great insight into the China’s biggest health scandal. The article also quotes Yan Lianke, the author of Dream of Ding Village, in the second last paragraph on issues about censorship of his book. It’s a interesting read. I highly recommend you to read it. It is just about 1000 words long:

It is not just local officials who are sensitive. The party’s propaganda department, which is under the supervision of Li Changchun (the former Henan chief), is just as prickly. Yan Lianke, a well-known writer who wrote a semi-fictional novel based on visits to an AIDS village in Henan, says his work was banned in a secret order issued by the propaganda department and the government’s General Administration of Press and Publication as soon as it reached bookshops a year ago.

Mr Yan says that he had even deleted some details of official involvement in the blood business. The publisher, in Shanghai, submitted a court claim in September arguing that it was no longer bound by some of its contractual obligations, including a donation of 50,000 yuan ($6,400) to the victims. The book, said the claim, had “harmed the country’s reputation”. The court’s decision is awaited.

Find the entire article here.

I also found this Youtube video from Duke University where Yan Lianke talks about censorship in China:

Plasma economy & plasmapheresis

Plasma Economy in China in the 1990s

As we all found out by reading Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village, in the early 90s, the Chinese higher-ups stared a campaign called the Plasma Economy to encourage locals to sell their blood and thus boost their income. Easy money, isn’t it? Go, sit, give your blood, come home with new red silk jacket. Completely painless, at least for the short term. In the long term, millions of people who sold their blood got infected with HIV and hence sentenced to inevitable death.

The blood-selling business was founded on plasmapheresis, a procedure that separates the cellular elements from the blood and then returns the remaining liquid back into the organism. More illustrative description is provided in the image below.

Plasmapheresis Diagram

Since the campaign was such a boom and resources were scarce (and blood heads did not really care much about the health of others), needles were reused, containers recycled and blood mixed together before being returned back to the patients. In all that mess, diseases spread like crazy. In this case, HIV/AIDS infected more than 40% of those who sold their blood. Millions of people died for money, money stained with blood.

And for those infected, life was not easy. The government refused to accept the existence of the epidemic while people were dying like moths. Instead of being sent into hospitals, people were being sent into jail.

And last but not least, what you get if you google Plasma Economy:

Keep reading!



Plasma Economy


AIDS & Word Choice


                Word choice is an important part of our class, Contagion, and understanding what a word means is essential when understanding an actual illness, whether we are thinking about its denotation or connotation.

                In class, we touched upon the difference between the word “disease” and “syndrome.” In Act 1 Scene 9 (Page 44), Henry, the doctor, explains to Roy his condition (AIDS) and when Roy calls it a “disease,” Henry corrects him by saying that it is a “syndrome.” This stirred up confusion as some people, like myself, thought that AIDS is an illness that simply kills people over time. However, AIDS is a condition that weakens people’s immune system and makes them vulnerable to other diseases. Put simply, “a person is diagnosed with AIDS when their immune system is too weak to fight off infections.” In fact, AIDS stands for: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. AIDS was “first identified in the early 1980s” and the novel, Angels in America, was published in 1992 which explains why some people did not know how or what to call it.

               Here is more information about the syndrome. AIDS is caused by HIV, which stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus, and it is a virus that attacks one’s immune system cells. When it damages these cells, the body becomes susceptible and it cannot fight off other infections. When this is left untreated, “it can take around ten years before HIV has damaged the immune system enough for AIDS to develop.” Here is a short clip explaining the process (

               HIV is found in the sexual fluids of an infected person, their blood, or in the breast milk of a woman. HIV gets transmitted when an adequate quantity of these types of fluids get into another person’s bloodstream. Here are some ways people can get infected with HIV: “Unprotected sexual intercourse with an infected person…Contact with an infected person’s blood…Use of infected blood products: Many people in the past have been infected with HIV by the use of blood transfusions and blood products which were contaminated with the virus. In much of the world this is no longer a significant risk, as blood donations are routinely tested for HIV. Injecting drugs: HIV can be passed on when injecting equipment that has been used by an infected person is then used by someone else…From mother to child: HIV can be transmitted from an infected woman to her baby during pregnancy, delivery and breastfeeding.”

               What is worrying is that “many people think there is a ‘cure’ for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS – which perhaps makes them take risks that they otherwise wouldn’t.” There is no cure for HIV but there are ways in which one can prevent it. Still, Antiretroviral Treatment can prolong the lives of those living with HIV and, fortunately, “someone with HIV who is taking treatment could live for the rest of their life without developing AIDS.”

Thank you for reading.


Mahra Al Suwaidi





Late Stages of Neurosyphilis

Dear all,

               I wanted to clarify Oswald’s condition in Ghosts (1881) by Henrik Ibsen as it was not explicitly stated in the play. I also included a few questions for thought at the end.

               Oswald Alving is suffering from Neurosyphilis, a sexually transmitted disease, which is an infection of either the brain or the spinal cord. This usually occurs with people who have had untreated syphilis for years. This is plausible because Oswald had been sent away from his family for years and, as a result, his parents wouldn’t have known otherwise. Moreover, Oswald seemed to be in denial of his condition for quite some time and only at the very end of the play did he reveal his condition to his mother.

               The symptoms of Neurosyphilis that match up to Oswald’s behavior are listed below. Although, it is necessary to mention that our knowledge is limited because most of the play consists of dialogue. The symptoms are as follows: dementia (loss of brain function which affects one’s thinking, language, memory, behavior, and judgment), depression, headaches, irritability, poor concentration, and weakness. There can also be no symptoms which could have been why Oswald did not mention it to his parents because he wouldn’t have noticed it in the earlier stages. These symptoms can slowly get worse which was evident with Oswald throughout the play. At the beginning, there were no signs of his condition but, gradually, we saw him in distress. This is especially evident when he was asking his mother to be by his side and the words he was uttering (“The sun….The sun” – Page 164) at the end of the play when he sounded like he had permanent brain damage.

               Do you think that if Oswald’s mother, Mrs. Alving, had told him about his father’s condition (as he also had the same condition), then Oswald could have taken safety precautions and gotten suitable health care? If Mrs. Alving knew about her son’s condition but was in denial of his strange behavior (and maybe justifying it by the fact that Oswald is not attached to her as a mother since he was away for so long), could she have had the impression that this disease was a punishment from God for the sins of his father and that is why it wouldn’t make a difference if she was silent? Does public opinion come into play in this scenario?

Thank you for reading,

Mahra Al Suwaidi



Contagion: The movie!

Below I have attached the trailer of the movie, that goes by the name Contagion. This movie is an attempt to depict what might happen if a deadly pandemic takes place in 21st Century.The movie documents the spread of the virus transmitted by formites. The virus causes global pandemic and nobody knows its cure until the very end of the movie(unlike in the real world, most of the movies have happy endings 🙂 ). Similarly to the texts we studied, in the movie the government tries to contain the virus by imposing quarantine but is not completely successful as people find ways to escape it. Although this movie is set in 21st Century, the government and public still act in the same way as they did in the Arthur Mervyn and Journal of the plague year.

Be careful on what you touch and share in public places as you might be carrier of a deadly virus that is about to cause a global pandemic.  🙂

Enjoy the trailer.

Plague Year redux

Shades of Defoe in this Ebola story out of Dallas:

The four family members who are living there are among a handful who have been directed by the authorities to remain in isolation, following what officials said was a failure to comply with an order to stay home. Texas health officials hand-delivered orders to residents of the apartment requiring them not to leave their home and not to allow any visitors inside until their roughly three-week incubation periods have passed.

Welcome to Contagion fall ’14

I’m looking forward to meeting a new round of students for this class on Sunday. I hope you’re all enjoying the opening sequence of King Oidipous, which you should be reading for our first meeting. Think about how the plague is invoked there — what purpose it serves Sophocles’ drama and how it may offer us a set of ideas to consider about the relationship between disease, language, and narrative, or the use of disease as a metaphor for personal or social disorder.

The other morning I led a discussion of Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, which you’ve all also read and discussed. Someone in that discussion actually raised Ebola as an example of a kind of natural disaster that might defy Solnit’s description of people coming together altruistically in order to rebuild new societies. It was a useful connection to the material from this class, much of which represents strangers fearing one another or fleeing the sick rather than offering assistance. “Communication” becomes a loaded metaphor in an epidemic situation because people fear — and sometimes it is, in fact the case — that conversation can be deadly, if the disease is communicated person-to-person. I acknowledged that Ebola would, indeed, pose quite a challenge to Solnit’s theory of utopian responses to disaster. Shortly after the discussion, though, a colleague showed me this video, which I thought might serve as a useful touchstone for our discussions this semester. I have a feeling Ebola might very well be the disease that haunts any number of our discussions this semester. I’ll be eager to hear what you think about this when we meet. See the link to the related article for more on these “burial boys.”

In the news

I’m thinking that next time around I may add a course role or assign one person a week to do a little news roundup on contagion topics. I keep seeing things I mean to post here. This, for example, from the Times on the WHO recent designation of Polio as a global health crisis.

Or this, also from the Times this weekend, on the relationship between HIV/AIDS rates in Africa and another disease nicknamed snail fever.

I also kept seeing references this weekend to dengue fever risks at the World Cup in Brazil.

And, closer to home.

All this makes me wonder if our semester’s reading has made us better consumers of news reports like these. What patterns or narratives or tropes are we now more apt to notice than we might have been a few months ago?