strange behaviors

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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Sinking a Ship to Get Rid of the Rats (Guardians Final)

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 16, 2013

Keeping yourself fit on the road can also stave off disease, or minimize the symptoms. The novelist George Orwell, in frail health and an enthusiastic smoker, wrote that his TB treatment was like “sinking the ship to get rid of the rats,” and he died of the disease 20 months later. Simon Richardson, on the other hand, took on a fundraising challenge 3 months into his TB treatment. On behalf of a group called TB Alert, he logged 34,000 meters on a rowing machine—the equivalent of crossing the English Channel—in just over 3 hours. In rowing parlance, that’s an average split time of 2:41, well on the way to recovery.

Even if exercise isn’t always possible, Dr. Lipkin (just off the plane from investigating the coronavirus in Saudi Arabia) recommends relaxation exercises to shake off the stress of travel. Eat well and stay hydrated, he says, to keep the protective tissues of the nose and mouth moist. Avoid shaking hands, and because that’s not always possible, wash your hands frequently and carry a hand sanitizer. Don’t touch your face, and for pity’s sake, don’t pick your nose or touch your eyes, especially after shaking hands. People touch their noses and other parts of the face far too many times an hour. He says you’re basically “inoculating your nose with what was in somebody else’s nose.”

What about the travel nightmare of being stuck beside a passenger who’s coughing up a lung on a sold-out flight? You may wish you had tucked a paper face mask in your carry-on. But even in the middle of an epidemic, people often end up wearing such masks on top of their head because they’re so uncomfortable. The flimsy ones with a single blue rubber band also will not protect you, according to a doctor who works with tuberculosis patients. Try the more expensive filtering masks, available at hardware stores, that have two elastic straps to pull the mask snug around your nose and mouth. Accept the fact that you will look like a fool. And since you probably won’t see anybody on that flight ever again, you won’t have the pleasure of laughing last. Plus, if you end up avoiding illness, you may not even remember to thank yourself for having done the smart thing.

And there in a nutshell is the frustrating conundrum of disease prevention in a dangerous age on a shrinking planet. Doctors who cure us when we are sick no doubt deserve the glory and gratitude we lavish on them. But the bigger achievement of keeping us from getting sick in the first place goes almost unnoticed. The virus hunters and disease detectives who spend their lives at it are a kind of ghost service, engaged in shadowy, uncertain, inglorious work. Ideally, if they succeed, we never even know they were there. Or as Dr. Clarke puts it, in a philosophical moment, “If something was prevented, how do you report that it never happened?”

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