Love in the time of Zika

“She discovered with great delight that one does not love one’s children just because they are one’s children, but because of the friendship formed while raising them.”

– Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

OK, so I lied. This email is not about Zika. Not too much, at any rate.

But it is about love. Sort of. You’ll see.

Let’s get Zika out of the way. Unless you’ve been listening to the SABC, you will know the world is all abuzz about the mosquito-borne Zika virus. Most people who get Zika, don’t even know they have it. Some women who had Zika in pregnancy bore children with below-average head sizes. This is blamed on the virus, though it could actually be due to a chemical the Brazilian government adds to the drinking water. It may take a while for the truth to emerge.

In the meantime, a couple in Texas managed to transfer the virus without the help of a mosquito. This method is infinitely more pleasant than being pricked by a mosquito, but it has health authorities worried that love could spread the Zika virus in non-tropical areas. So far, their fears seem unfounded – there’s not a lot of love going around these days.

So, is it safe to love? (Not that it is EVER safe to love, but let’s stick with biology for now.)

Well, to paraphrase the LPD*, “Caring is Sharing”.

In other words, when we love, we get closer. And when we touch, we share more than just a moment.

We share our microbes.

Romantic love often leads to parental love. We humans also practice friendship love and – for the die-hard pain-gluttons among us – selfless love. A while ago, my three-year old daughter told her elder brother, “I don’t like you but I love you.” A good summary of love, I thought.

We nowadays often confuse “like” with “love” (maybe it’s a Facebook thing?). Love is that which makes you go on long after the like is gone. Interestingly, the longer you love, the more likeable the other person becomes. The stuff fairy tales are spun of.

No matter what kind of loving you engage in, it won’t take long for you to share microbes. Microbes on droplets in the air, or on the skin, travel with remarkable ease to other galaxies waiting to be colonised. Our instinctive response is to prevent the spread. Indeed, there’s a definite Yuck! factor attached to the thought of sharing microbes. Barrier nursing in patients with low immune systems represents an extreme version of this avoidance.

Yet, for the vast majority of us (and the vast majority of infections), getting infected / colonised is mostly a good thing, not a bad thing.

Put down those antibiotics and no-one will get hurt.

Every time you meet a microbe, your body’s immune system is challenged. That keeps the immune system “battle-ready”. There is even some vague evidence that fevers protect against cancer, for example. An immune system that isn’t fighting infection gets “bored” and begins to attack the body itself. Thus people growing up in hyper-clean environments tend to get a whole new set of illnesses, such as allergies and auto-immune diseases.

One way or another, you’re gonna suffer, buddy.

The more infections your body battles, the easier it overcomes new attacks (and the less you will suffer from them). This is the premise behind vaccination, too (which I’m NOT going to discuss here – or elsewhere). The point I’m making is that “more is less”. Avoiding infection is not the answer for an otherwise healthy immune system.

Come closer, darling! The Doc says it’s OK.

Sharing viruses and bacteria is part of being social. It’s not always exactly pleasant (even though the sharing itself may be quite pleasant), but sharing microbes has definite survival value. At worst, only those with strong immune systems survive to pass on their genes. That’s a rather grim way of seeing it – but that’s what happened in the wake of the medieval Black Plague.

But most human-to-human infections don’t cause death or long-term disability. Remember, a microbe always needs a host, so those microbes who kill their hosts, slit their own throats. The really serious infective agents are mostly borne by vectors – other species that carry the microbe with little or no effect on the species.

There’s a much, much deeper effect that infections have on humans, however. I don’t think the biological “survival of the fittest” strategy is the last word in human immunity. Suure, survival is something we share with all animals. But humans have a trump card, something greater than survival.

Regular infection and disease among humans have encouraged a curious type of behaviour called “caring”. I’m not saying that animals can’t care, but in the case of humans, that care is dimensionally bigger than anywhere in the animal kingdom. And it has a powerful bonding effect on those communities that practice it.

At core, care is simply the tender supply of basic human needs during a time when a sick person is not able to look after him/herself. Care like this has no direct link with diagnosis or cure. When faced with illness in others, we have to answer the question, “How would I want to be treated in that situation?” And, when faced with our own illness, we can better understand the suffering of others, which deepens the tenderness of our care, in turn.

Tails, we win. Heads, we win.

We’ve come full circle. When we love each other, microbes jump ship and this sometimes causes harm. But when harm occurs, it presents a chance to strengthen the bonds of love in ways we never thought possible before. Once our immune systems cope with the new invader, the illness fades, but the love doesn’t. It grows. Sickness makes us less likeable, but more “love able”. The people you love most are most likely the people who still loved you when you were at your worst.

Suffering shared is suffering halved.

Joy shared is joy doubled.

Isn’t it great to be human?

Keep lovin’!

Doc Frank

*LPD = Large Purple Dinosaur

PS. We’ve come a long way from simply “caring for the sick”. Sadly, the better we get at dealing with the “sick”, the worse we get at the “caring”. Time for a reality check?

PPS. If you are going to a (sub-)tropical area and need some extra strength to cope with the new challenges, consider using my Zestura immune booster. It works really well against most of the worst infections. Keeps you vertical so you can better look after others!