Primer on Pathogens: Part 1/3

There’s nothing like a good pathogen story line for medical thriller authors. It might be considered a mandatory novel requirement if you’re in the genre. Hmm . . . guess I better start developing a virus-run-amok story line.

Great examples would be Robin Cook’s Outbreak and the unrelated movie Outbreak that starred Dustin Hoffman. Recent film examples would be Contagion.

I was talking with a physician co-worker of mine after the movie Contagion was released and she said she’d applied for work at the CDC but they were overwhelmed by applications as a result of the movie. Personally, that movie would have quelled my desire to study virulent pathogens up close and personal but I guess if you like to hang over the edge of the cliff like that go right ahead . . . I’d rather write books.

When picking a pathogen there’re a couple of principles to keep in mind when you choose your microorganism of destruction.

First– what is a pathogen? A pathogen is a microorganism that causes disease. It can be one of four things: bacteria, virus, fungus or prion. Each has a different level of virulence.

Virulence is how deadly a pathogen is. Generally– medical thrillers pick bugs that have high virulence (hence the dramatic part.) This is the concern with the new SARS like virus (MERS-CoV) in Saudi Arabia that has a death rate of 60%. That’s scary. I’ll blog about that later this week.

Next thing to consider is how will the pathogen spread or what is its route of transmission? If you’re talking medical thriller– airborne transmission is generally preferred because of it’s ease and spread of transmission.

Pathogens can be spread person to person through touch (common cold), contaminated blood (HIV, Hepatitis C), saliva (rabies), and air (measles.)

Pathogens can also be spread through food, water, insects and fomites (non-living objects such counter tops).

Another thing to consider is the incubation period which is the time between exposure and development of symptoms and surprisingly they vary widely depending on what agent is involved. For instance, Mad Cow disease could have up to a 30 year incubation period whereas a staph infection can have an incubation period as short as one hour.

Here a list to peruse of different pathogens and some of these principles.   

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