August 10, 2013 11:20 am

This Sunday, the Facts Are Scarier than the Fiction

Picture of 2 researchers inspecting a bat for Ebola.

Searching for the reservoir of the Ebola virus in Gabon and Republic of Congo. Credit: ©IRD/Jean-Jacques Lemasson

The Mayan Apocalypse. The Zombie Apocalypse. The end of life on Earth as a result of the reversal of the magnetic poles. The more science you know, the more facts you have at your disposal, the less likely you are to worry about imaginary perils like these.

Which is why this week’s StarTalk Radio is so terrifying. Because when it comes to deadly viruses, the more facts you have, the scarier the world gets.

Laurie Garrett tells a story of 20,000 dead pigs floating down the Huangpu River that runs through the middle of Shanghai, China. Disgusting, sure, but scary? Yes, when the event is coincidental with the first cases of H7N9 influenza, which killed 25% of the people who caught it.

Every good horror show needs a sequel or two, and since our Zombie Apocalypse episodes were so popular, we invited infectious disease expert and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Laurie Garrett back to answer your Cosmic Queries this week. Why Laurie and not Max Brooks? Because most of the questions our fans asked weren’t about fictional Zombies. They were about the real implacable killers that threaten humanity: viruses.

Take Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus, aka MERS-CoV. It’s a genetic relative of SARS, and it’s been percolating in Saudi Arabia and other spots in the Middle East. So far, nearly half of all the people infected by MERS have died. And this October, millions of people from more than 180 countries will travel to Mecca in Saudi Arabia for the religious pilgrimage known as the Hajj. According to the CDC, that number includes thousands of Americans. And if you’re not worried yet, ponder this: the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Health is concerned enough that they recommended that people over 65, children under 12, pregnant women, people with weakened immune systems, chronic diseases, cancer, terminal diseases postpone their plans for Hajj this year.

And if you think H7N9 and MERS are the only monsters hiding under the bed this episode, think again. For me, the scariest part of the episode is when Laurie tells Neil deGrasse Tyson and Chuck Nice about the manmade viruses we’re making in labs around the world, including deadly airborne pathogens. Oh, and did I mention that teams of high school and college students are competing to create new organisms? What could possibly go wrong with that?

Am I suggesting that ignorance is bliss, and that you should skip this episode of StarTalk Radio if you ever want to be able to leave your house again?

Of course not. Staying inside your house won’t protect you from deadly airborne microscopic pathogens, whether you’re aware of them or not.

What I am suggesting is that if you want to scare yourself silly about something you have no control over, this is an episode you don’t want to miss.

Cosmic Queries: Viruses, Outbreaks and Pandemics will be on iTunes and our website this Sunday night at 7PM ET. You can also listen on Stitcher and SoundCloud (although it usually takes between 15-30 minutes longer for the show to end up there).

That’s it for now. Keep Looking Up!

–Jeffrey Simons


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