Epidemiology and Medical Anthropology

I likely will not be going into anthropology as a career, but I do have a great interest in human pathology and the origin of diseases. In grade school, I was fascinated by the history section on the black plague and how it spread around the world. The lack of medical knowledge about microorganisms led to rumors and mysticism. The plague doctors of the time were like shaman complete with the beak shaped masks filled with herbs. Understanding how previous plagues have shaped our collective herd immunity today can help us predict and respond to infectious threats in the future. One of the most interesting connections in this field is the CCR5-delta 32 gene mutation (commonly called Delta 32). During the plague, people with one copy of the Delta 32 mutation were more likely to get better instead of die from the bubonic plague. People with two copies were immune from infection. Anthropologists know from records of deaths recorded in parish churches that in some towns half of the population inexplicably survived. One was a lead mining town in England called Eyam. After the town became infected, they quarantined themselves to prevent the plague from spreading to other towns. They took care of their own dead and dying neighbors and it was assumed that they would all die. The current population has been tested and it shows a high prevalence of the Delta 32 mutation that has been passed on. The really interesting part is that people with two copies of the mutation are also immune to HIV/AIDS. Doctors today could learn a lot about our current diseases by studying how we fought of diseases of the past. Collaboration between medical staff and anthropologists could lead to new breakthroughs in medicine or at least suggest fruitful avenues of research. Anthropologists are good at finding out what makes each culture unique to avoid culture clash but they can also help determine why some groups of people survived hardship and others did not.

“Case File: Mystery of the Black Death” Secrets of the Dead, accessed August 9th, 2013, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets/previous_seasons/case_plague/interview.html

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