The public perception of social ills is generally one of evil. People have often considered those ill to be possessed by demons, or perhaps had it coming and were plagued by God. You might have been considered unclean for moral reasons. In literature, a guilty conscience or serious character flaw might manifest itself as an illness.
This, without knowledge of science, might even look like a reasonable characterization of disease. A concept in social psychology says that when we view others, their ills are caused by themselves and their wealths are a result of their environment and friends. When we view ourself, we see our ills as caused by society and our wealth as caused by our own hard work. In fact, this concept explains the Tea Party’s irrational judgement fairly well.
However, germ theory and modern microbiology have allowed us a new look at disease. Agents of disease are not evil. They are not good. They are simply coordinated biochemical reactions, orchestrated to propagate the life and well-being of an organism. (yes, i know a virus isn’t really alive–that’s a topic for another day)
Look at this photo of ebola. Ebola literally wreaks havoc on your body. It destroys it. Ebola is relatively quick and extremely painful. Luckily, this helps us quarantine it. Ebola is one of the hemorrhagic viruses. If you don’t know what that means, consider not finding out. It may not be worth the nightmares.
But regardless of the grotesque involved with ebola, you have to admire it’s simplicity. Compared to the complexity of human biochemistry, ebola packages relatively few genes on a negative-sense RNA strand. When it enters a body, it does not scheme to enter particular cells with vengeance. Biochemistry simply permits it.
Viruses have no intent. They are, somewhat simply, biochemical reactions that went wrong. You can’t really classify things as right or wrong, though.
When a virus enters a cell, it is what it is man. It feels wrong, but for the virus it’s sooooo right. When cholera injects its toxin complex into your intestine cells, it just is what it is. Your body more/less helps it, for while your immune system will attempt to fight foreign objects, cellular proteins will help mediate infection. It is all just simply a beautiful orchestration of biochemistry.
When someone gets an infection, we don’t blame them. Unfortunately, this does not apply to all types of illness. Victims of mental illness are still viewed with stigma and shame. The public perception can barely stop viewing viruses as agents of evil, so how can we expect them to stop viewing mental illness as an object of shame? The first is consciousness raising, and I’ve seen this work. Campaigns like Spread the Word to End the Word are changing the language, which inevitably are helping change perception (eg: that individual is not autistic, they have autism). In the same vein, a better biological education with evolution and molecular biology will help the future understand the beat of the heart, HIV infection, hormonal regulation, the biochemistry of the brain, cancer, and so much more. viva la revolution!