Parasites and Modern Man

by Michael Rossman

[Written five years before the AIDS epidemic was recognized, but nearly prescient.]


         I am Modern Man, a middle-aged middle-class citizen living modestly in an intelligent city keen on public health. As a landlord and the head of a small family, I oversee an empire of hygiene whose tools include tubs, showers, laundry machines, cleaning utensils, stoves and water heaters, porcelain privies, and a variety of caustic and toxic chemicals. Lord knows, we seem to be using and fixing them all the time; I suppose we are miles ahead of Ancient Man, if a bit sloppy by our parents' standards. So why is it I feel like a lesson in ecology, the target of a myriad parasites ancient and modern?

         The list begins with Giardia Lamblia, a dysenteric amoeba partial to human intestines. Our pediatrician was delighted to find it, via via lab report, in our son's feces—he had been waiting for something exotic ever since I told him how often we take our pleasure tramping through the woods and ponds. "It's quite contagious," he said cheerfully, writing a prescription that made us all quite sick for a day. He needn't have been so smug about how rare the bug was, though, for I have since heard its name in mild complaint from a number of people who never get their feet wet.

         Those amoebas were easy parasites to purge, but the tiny food moths have been invulnerable. They appeared in our former kitchen after a summer of open windows. We were innocents then, and could not recognize the subtle traces of caterpillar-web and -dropping within the neat bags of pasta and grain, the boxes of cereal, until our whole store of starch was infested. We cleaned house, chucked out everything suspect and baked the rest in the oven just in case. And did this again, and yet again, while we discovered that these vile worms could thrive in anything—biscuits of fragrant Mexican chocolate saved for a party, the tin of cayenne pepper left open for an hour. When we moved, we left all such stores behind; kept our new pasta in plastic buckets; and congratulated ourselves prematurely. Eight months later they were back, fluttering in mating ecstasy while I swatted frantically. Are they endemic to our city, or do they just like us?

         In the years since, we have forced them to a stalemate, a stable marginal niche in the house ecology, by keeping everything we don't immediately eat in sealed containers and scrutinizing these with paranoid eyes. Still they appear in small seasonal flushes, perhaps from some nugget of dog-kibble lodged inaccessible beneath the fridge. I can't say I'm unhappy with the standoff—it gives me occasional exercise in coordination, and I do enjoy the silvery sheen their wings leave on my palms when I time my clap right. I mean, it's nice to actually get my hands on a parasite, even the most benign.

         I feel this way about the lice too, though I'm too civilized to enjoy crunching them between my teeth as they deserve. Still I take care to crisp the telltale one personally with a match before turning to wholesale chemical murder, for I really have come to hate them on their own merits, quite apart from cultural propaganda. The first time was a shock, a blow to my middle-class self-image. Me, afflicted like some filthy derelict! But soon I entered the romantic phase, wherein one says reasonably, "Hey now, it isn't that big a deal, it's like the dog and his fleas, they don't hurt, they just itch a bit." And I went with a bit of shame and bravado to the pharmacy to pick up some Kwell, and we used it and made faces and washed everything and it was all okay. Afterwards we reassured each other—"See, that wasn't so bad, was it?"—and joked about how paranoid we were at each least itch for weeks.

         So it went, every year or two during the hippie era. The dawn of the Seventies seemed to affect lower beasts too. I hadn't seen a louse for six years and was at the point of feeling nostalgic about them, when a non-casual liason or perhaps the kid's schoolmates renewed that old romance. It lasted through the first time we washed everything in the house, and then vanished for good three weeks later when we caught ourselves itching again. During the past eight months—what with sharing children with the family downstairs, plus the general louse epidemic in the city's schools—we have been through the complete purge five times, We now take to the furniture with hot irons and line up for weekly poison baths. And I look for the right louse to fry in magic ritual, maybe I can find the king or queen. For what is one to do? Their egg-cases survive near as long as do fleas'.

         The fleas aren't really my problem, but they sure do pester Karen when the dog is off visiting. I think maybe she's lacking B-complex vitamins or should eat more broccoli, mosquitoes seem to like her better too. But I don't know what to tell the dog. The San Francisco area is legendary as the nation's flea heaven. They usually slack off in winter, but this is the second year of record dry weather. Poor Bull now looks like a worn teddy-bear, his rear end permanently patchy from nipping—not at the artfully-dodging fleas, but at his own flesh, itch-flamed by allergic reaction to the infinitesimal traces of flea-sweat and -excreta. Half the dogs in town suffer so, no one even jokes about eucalyptus nut oil now. The vet won't look me in the eye any more, she just hands me the new can of poison and says, "Spray every other day, and try not to breath it." I don't because Bull's developing an allergic reaction to the spray. And we've stopped fumigating the house, it doesn't work well with wall-to-wall carpets anyway. There's no way to prevent re-infestation, and fleas' eggs and larvae can live without food for months So it's poison baths and spray, as often as we can stand it.

         I don't mean to digress from Modern Man, for he is partly the company he keeps, and thoroughly parasitized all the way round. We live in a green house, having perhaps a hundred plants—fewer than some of our friends, in a community given to growing things. And it must have been from friends' dear gifts that I imported my variety of horticultural parasites -- all but the midget albino termites, which came with the Brazilian orchid from the horticultural society's annual sale, and which were too specialized to survive in our clime.

         It does seem miraculous that I green-thumbed it with drugstore cripples and random cuttings for a decade before meeting anything more persistent than an occasional covey of fragile aphids descended from a garden visitor. But when the lice left something had to compensate, and during their absence I became familiar with mealybugs, nematodes, spit-bugs, thrips and three kinds of scale. And spider-mites. Everything else I licked without much fuss, and I even mastered normal spider-mite infestations. Indeed, I often have the gloomy pleasure of announcing them to unsuspecting hosts, relieving my tone of doom by prescribing appropriate poisons. But people sense it's the hollow reassurance of the psychiatrist with family problems himself.

         For it's been two years now that I've fought them, not spun in their proper tiny weblets where poison can reach them, as they do in most other plants, but buried instead in the flesh of my prize philodendron, which I've tended for fifteen years and which, before its blight, spread its huge leaves in a thirty-foot canopy round my room. After spraying, bathing, and soil-soaking with six commercial products of increasing virulence, in various combinations and timings, the spider-mites, though sometimes retarded, continue their advance at the tips of its denuded runners. And I have inhaled and otherwise absorbed such a cocktail of poison, in the sheer task of manhandling this massive ailing creature, that I would give hope up for good, did not the plant store man say a new miracle poison is coming out next spring.

         With the philodendron and the dog to remind me of the world's way, why should I be proud, or find the recurrence of this or that pestilence a surprise? What's surprising instead is how reluctant people remain to discuss parasitism as a fact of life. If I say I have a friend whose kid caught lice from one of the Rockefeller kids, it still sounds like nasty gossip. But I do, and it's news of how united the human family still is in some of its miseries. And it makes me paranoid. Gone are the days of promiscuous exchange, when cuttings were offered as casually as kisses and received with scarcely more attention. Instead I frown at each gift-wrapped pot and inquire about hygiene at home, and learn to be careful about quarantine.

         But sometimes quarantine's impossible. How can you keep a kid out of school? We think that was where our son picked up the pinworms, though their eggs also blow in the breeze. By the time he complained of an itchy anus, we all were thoroughly infested. And if we grew in a certain sense fond of the little creatures, it was not simply from resignation and marvel at the variety of plagues we were subject to, but on account of their habits—which we had ample opportunity to observe intimately, as we ate the appropriate poisons and washed everything we owned four times before they stayed gone.

         Every month as the moon grew full, the female pinworms would rouse themselves from their warm intestinal habitat and journey to the outer world, to deposit their eggs daintily at the surface of the anus, where the males, in similar pilgrimage, would follow to fertilize them. Their timing was quite precise. Twice we had thought we were done with them and forgot to watch; and both times the three of us began to itch independently within a few hours of each other, the night before full moon. Along with a truly remarkable sensation, localized in specifically sexual epithelial tissues, which lasts two days until one can get the poison and have it take effect—no, garlic doesn't help—I experienced in the pinworms' swarming action the kind of deep pleasure I associate with any inexorable, periodic natural phenomenon, a tribute to the forceful dance of life. Yes, it's really something, to sit there with a bottom full of worms, and nothing to be done about it till tomorrow. One wants to thank them, for lying low most of the month.

         Our doctor, though grateful for the variety we bring him, still thinks of us as romantics and smiles at our notion that pinworms dance to the moon. I have not dared tell him just how many worms I have counted in a single stool, for fear he think me megalomaniacal. Yet I fancy myself a serious scientific observer, and my pride is stung also by the best vet in Berkeley, who laughs when I report that my dog wants to eat green salad with vinegar whenever he's taking those pills for his flea eczema. But it's true.

         For I'm the science teacher at my son's school, and I'm on the lookout for ecological relationships. Perhaps it's fitting that I have so many in my own life, it gives me good material to talk about with the kids. This month brought the matter home with a vengeance. We've been treating our son for months for a mysterious face-rash, and I finally thought to really look at the other kids in the two classes I teach. Sure enough, about half in each class were infected. We had a great time calling all work to a halt and inspecting each other, and pooling our knowledge about what to do. Few of the afflicted kids were under treatment, and none of their doctors knew quite what it was, or could tell them anything more than, "use this ointment three times a day, it'll kill whatever it is, but it'll take a long time." Not a single parent had sent a notice to school.

        It was a bad lesson all around—neglect, avoidance, ignorance and shotgun treatment—and we talked about it. The kids asked why the doctors didn't make cultures to learn if it were a fungus or a bacteria, and I wondered why too. They know about cultures, having incubated cough-plates when we studied bacteria. Their primitive notion of disease as simple invasion was upset, as they learned that we host some dangerous parasites normally, even at our healthiest, most times managing to keep them in balance. (It's not just my gloomy experience, but scientific fact.) And they were more upset to learn what their loving parents and doctors are doing to them, and to us all, by automatically laying on the antibiotic magic each time there's a scratch or a sniffle. At six and eight years old, they are old enough to understand the basic story: that with ourselves as incubators we are breeding new kinds of parasites, progressively more immune to our power to control them.

         It's clearest in the case of clap. When I got my first dose in 1966, clinics were already warning us that the standard penicillin treatment had jumped from 40,000 units to 400,000 in a decade. It was over a million by the time I had my last dose, and gonorrhea has remained the nation's most widespread contagious disease (colds aside) in the eight years since. At least, I think it was my last dose. But how can one tell, with all the new reports coming out now about gonorrheal strains—are they legacies from the recent war, or products of our tampering, or both?—which often cause no symptoms to inspire one to get tested, and may not reveal themselves even when they are tested for; and will not respond to ordinary antibiotics, or perhaps to any at all?

         Indeed, most post-pubescent Americans these days have increasing reason to fear our sexual flora and fauna. A variety of vaginal infections, by bacteria and fungii, are pandemic among even monogamous women. Perhaps it's only that people talk more candidly about such matters now, but I think it's also due in part to the same backfire of our drug treatment methods, and due to the ill-researched way in which millions of women are altering their metabolisms and vaginal environments by the use of IUDs, contraceptive pills and spermicides.

        That's how such troubles started in our house, with Karen. I have now known so many other women whose low-grade infections—overlooked or misdiagnosed, symptomatically treated with routine stupidity even by better doctors—lingered and recurred for years, causing serious bladder and kidney infections, cervical cauterizations, and removal of ovaries, that I'm convinced the whole matter is a national scandal and crime of major proportions.

         Of course, I do hear more about such matters than most people do, as a number of my friends are (legitimate) sex therapists. Being on the professional fringe is a mixed joy, as it brings one early worry. We were talking about the Herpes II virus a good year and a half before it got into the popular press, and I'll bet most people still haven't got the story straight.

         In part that's because science still hasn't got it all figured out. Last I heard, there was still some uncertainty about whether Herpes II, "genital herpes", was fundamentally distinct from Herpes I, the virus responsible for the common cold sore; or whether one might produce the other in special times and circumstances. What is known is that Herpes II behaves like its namesake, manifesting as cold-sores on the genitals, sometimes noticeable and sometimes not, and then retreating to the nerve sheathes inside the body, to lie low in innocuous parasitism until bodily or emotional stress bring it forth in eruption again. Presently Herpes II is thought to be contagious only during such times—though of course one may not realize when an eruption is beginning, or perhaps even when it has happened.

         No true treatment is known, though a few approaches can often relieve the symptoms; its activity seems to die down in a few years. The sores are no great tragedy; they're a bit painful, like cold sores, but they go away. Only there's this little matter of a significant correlation with cervical cancer, which no one understands yet. The first studies indicate that having had Herpes II only doubles or triples the risk. But it's a subtle and newly recognized disease, and also, apparently, a newly-spreading one, and the cervical cancer rates themselves are rising fast. There's no telling what we'll learn by the time the long-term studies accumulate, especially since the ultraviolet dye treatment popular now for symptomatic relief of Herpes II is known to cause mutation in herpes viruses. Despite the official reassurances, it's enough to make anyone who's ever had cold-sores shudder a bit at the thought of oral-genital contact.


         So what's to do about it all? Reciting this list of our plagues, and thinking about how loosely we do run our affairs according to our parents' standards, I can't help feeling guilty. All the simple, traditional lore—about hygiene, avoiding exposure, and prompt and systematic treatment—cries out for more rigorous observance. And yes, we could do it.

         We could each bathe at least once a day, as 75% of middle-class Americans do, water-waste be damned. We could launder after each wearing, sell the old furniture and get new, get rid of all the rugs and constantly manicure the expanses of polished floor, make the dog live outside and spray him with poison daily, fumigate the whole house regularly, start over with a few new plants and the house hermetically sealed against re-infestation, avoid public toilets, keep our kid away from school and other kids, stay home during winter, use the rhythm method, worm ourselves regularly, get lots of flu shots, eat only frozen foods, never go barefoot, swimming or hiking, and swear off any other carnal contact. Almost every item goes against the grain and feel of our lives; and so does the basic stance, of living in constant defensive fear.

         And it still wouldn't work. For there is something awesomely right and dreadfully wrong about us and our parasites right now. It may seem just new-consciousness cleverness to draw, from the perpetual presence of strep and staph germs in our systems, the fundamental lesson that parasitism is a subtle natural condition, and health a matter of balance and judicious accomodation rather than of triumph by extermination. But how else can we read the fact that despite our best efforts we have still as many sorts of parasites, if in some ways less virulent ones, as do pre-technological peoples? It is my weird fortune to have experienced each of the nine plagues I've mentioned, but every one is pandemic in the land.

         Nor are our efforts to control the situation inspiring, for there is something off-balance about them all. Even obsessive cleanliness takes its toll, as over-used alkaline soaps destroy the skin's normal ecology in ways we have only recently begun to recognize, before trickling down the drain to destabilize the larger ecology. We chased after the bacteria behind pimples and acne, those traditional landmarks of adolescence, with PhisoHex -- until we found its use caused brain damage. My own venerable father came home from his late forays into unmarried sex in genteel company with a roaring case of scabies, more vicious than lice. The standard chemical cure produces the symptoms of scabies again as a byproduct, and Dad was dosing himself and tearing at his flesh and dosing some more for a month after he was clean, before he realized what was happening—and before I saw in his plight one symbol for what's happening to us all.

         For we are undone by our intents, as well as by our works. It all seemed so innocent, so natural—the simple wish to escape infestation, by sanitation, purge, defensive controls, isolation, higher technology. Yet our ships and planes brought new parasites—from syphilis to Asian flu and Malaysian nematodes—as fast as they brought new technicians to dispel them. For the sake of unblemished fruit we poisoned the deep waters and brought great birds to extinction, yet the humble louse survives and thrives. We have exterminated all life in our cities save ourselves and our chosen dependents, so much as we were able. Yet from our very flesh, in response to the works and ways that maintain our city lives, springs now increasingly the subtlest and most fearsome parasite, the body's own cells turned cancerous—as if we were bearing from ourselves what we had denied from the world.

         It is a fitting punishment for our hubris, our belief that we were clever enough to win  and genuinely dominate all life. We have shaken the very web of life in trying to prove it—yet that web is more ancient and resilient than we are, and embraces us in return. Algae grow in the water cooling nuclear reactor cores, our genital bacteria adapt to the antibiotics. As ever since life began, some creatures thrive and some die in each change; and for the first time since Science began, we have come to be uncertain about ourselves, how we shall fare.

         All that is clear now is that each new step we take to re-affirm our old ways of trying to eat without being eaten—each more sophisticated poison, each next retreat from intimacy with the world and each other—only deepens some deadly pretense and imbalance. And as Modern Man, I am somewhat confused now. For neither pinworm, louse nor Herpes II will yield to good nutrition and garlic, and I still depend vitally upon our modern hygienic armament and ways. My own son did not die of smallpox. The pockets of bubonic plague still hosted by animals in my state's mountains will not trouble me unless (until?) there is urban catastrophe. When I take the night air I am sure that the few mosquitoes surviving hereabouts do not carry malaria. I give thanks.

         And so I get out the Kwell for the lice, and trust to tetracycline to break my son's ear infection. But I do so now with a divided mind and heart, less as one potent than as one helpless. Trained to science, I have become the disillusioned priest, sinking into superstition. Each winter now I wait for some new plague, mysterious and deadly, to arise in the East and arrive on the wind, immune to our control. And even our efforts to prepare have come to seem as much the devil's work as godly. In laboratories today technicians, still thinking they are zeroing in on life's secret, toy with the delicate mysteries of recombinant DNA, still striving to fashion the tools that will make us at last invulnerable. They boast their hope that we shall have the power to tailor life-forms for our every need: bacteria to clean up the oil we spill, merciless parasites to exterminate our parasites.

         It is a loving hope, however unbalanced be the heart it springs from and the pride it would protect. I do not doubt we shall gain the power. I only wish I believed we would use it with more care and foresight than a doctor's prescription. For the controversy over control of recombinant genetics strikes a deep chord of guilty fear, and I am not alone in my superstitious dread that we shall arrange our own punishment for our presumptions, pinch-­hitting for an absent higher power.

         Many people now share the misgiving that our cookery in the DNA kitchen will create, by benign accident or military design, new life indeed. Our ultimate parasite will perhaps be merely a modified virus or bacterium, formerly friendly to its human hosts. Its fatal powers, at first overlooked, will be beyond our sophisticated control, and it will ravage us unchecked even by the subtler powers of the great web of Earth-life, to which it will be a true stranger. If so, it will be as if, having refused nature's lesson from pride, we had taught ourselves a crueler one.


Published in Hustler, July, 1978

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