The Four Corners Outbreak

An examination
by Chris Hibbard

The Four Corners Outbreak: Traditional Knowledge in our Modern Times

Traditional knowledge is more than just folk lore and legend. It is more than just knowledge that has been gained through tradition and practice, to be passed down via oral tradition from one generation to the next. While in many ways traditional knowledge is both of these things, it is much more. It is a cumulative and complex body of knowledge and beliefs than are transmitted culturally, about the relationships between all living things, with one another and with their environment.

From 1987 to 1999, Federico Mayor Zaragoza, a Spanish scholar and politician, served as Director-General of UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). During his term, he defined traditional knowledge as follows:

“The indigenous people of the world possess an immense knowledge of their environments, based on centuries of living close to nature.  Living in and from the richness and variety of complex ecosystems, they have an understanding of the properties of plants and animals, the functioning of ecosystems and the techniques for using and managing them that is particular and often detailed.  In rural communities in developing countries, locally occurring species are relied on for many – sometimes all – foods, medicines, fuel, building materials and other products.  Equally, people’s knowledge and perceptions of the environment, and their relationships with it, are often important elements of cultural identity.”

While his definition is accurate on at least a general level, to indigenous peoples throughout the world, traditional knowledge is slightly simpler. It is practical common sense based on teachings and experiences passed on from generation to generation. It is knowledge of the earth – the environment, resources, and the relationships between all things. It is holistic and cannot be compartmentalized or separated from the people who hold it.  It is deeply rooted in the spiritual health, culture and language of the people.

Traditional knowledge is both a way of life and an authority system, setting out the rules governing the use of resources – respect and an obligation to share.  It is dynamic, cumulative and stable. It is truth. This truth becomes very evident through the following case study.

In 1993, a series of sudden, unexplained deaths in New Mexico frightened the entire Navajo community. Navajo people, mostly those who were healthy and in their young adulthood, were coming down with a disease that revealed itself as flu-like symptoms merely hours before lungs began to fill with fluid. State law in New Mexico requires all unexplained deaths to be reported to a central registry, and all suspicious deaths are autopsied at the Office of the Medical Investigator in Albuquerque. All autopsies are performed in its labs.

By this point, the labs in Albuquerque were becoming alarmed. All the victims of this strange and deadly disease were coming from the Navajo Nation living in the Four Corners region, a 25,000 square mile reservation northwest of the city of Gallup.

The first few cases were diagnosed as being “adult respiratory distress syndrome”, a label that can result from many conditions, including heart failure, massive infection, and shock from a severe injury – none of which the victims had. The forensic pathologist at the autopsy labs notice that one commonality between the victims was that their lungs weighed more than twice what they should have, and were not filled with pus, as would indicate pneumonia, but rather with the clear, yellowish fluid that makes up the plasma portion of blood.

She then ordered tests for every known infection that might have caused such a condition. All came back negative. Troubled for weeks by this mystery disease, she called the state health department in Santa Fe to report a possible outbreak in New Mexico of an unknown and deadly respiratory illness. By the seventh Navajo death, the list of possible viruses at work was narrowing. Plague was crossed off the list, as were influenza, Legionnaires’ disease, and anthrax. The CDC, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta were called in.

Meanwhile, state and Navajo health officials were investigating, interviewing families, friends and doctors who had known the decedents. Their jobs were made more challenging once the local and then national media jumped on the story. Reporters and camera crews descended on the reservation, photographing funerals, printing victims’ names, and trying to question their bereaved families. In some cases this attention went directly against the Navajo tradition of a four-day mourning period. To add insult to injury, many news reports branded the illness a “Navajo disease.” Some Navajos wondered aloud if tourists had brought the disease to the reservation, or if Fort Wingate, a nearby munitions depot, may have leaked some kind of biological weapon.

The title of “Navajo disease” was relinquished shortly however, when Anglo and Hispanic victims began on the other side of the state, and in eastern Texas. As the cases kept coming in, one medical technician who had assisted in one of the autopsies came down with a sudden unexplained fever and muscle aches. Though he recovered from the mysterious illness, the entire medical community was spooked.

Faced with an outbreak that seemed to be spreading, and no closer to an answer, a task force was arranged, a brainstorm session between CDC officials, infectious-disease and toxicology experts and doctors who had treated local victims.

First they reviewed their clinical findings of the victims: high counts of white blood cells, low counts of platelets (blood clotting agents), fever, cough, and trouble breathing. The task force considered where patients lived, where they might have acquired the disease, any connections that they may have had to each other. Because of the fluid-filled lungs in all cases, possible causes of lung disease were discussed, in two major categories; toxins and infectious agents. Yet their lists, which included from WWI-era poison gas and heavy metals in the ground, to Chlamydia and Q-fever, a disease that spreads through cattle, sheep, and goat populations. The one disturbing possibility that kept coming up was a “new agent.”

As a result of this, the CDC’s Special Pathogens Branch was called in. The Special Pathogens Branch deals with the most dangerous viruses known to man, including the Dengue, Marburg, and Ebola strands of hemorrhagic fever.

After weeks of dangerous genetic research, they came to know their suspect. It appeared to be a previously unknown species of Hantavirus. The Hantavirus is named after the river in Korea where it was first pinpointed in the 1950’s. It causes HPS, or Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, and is transmitted by infected rodents through urine, droppings, or saliva, which humans can then breathe in particles of.

This new species differed however, in that it caused flooding of the lungs, instead of the expected bleeding in the kidneys. As well, this species seemed to target seemingly healthy adults, rather than the young, old, or weak. As one expert explained it, “If the Hanta virus is a hurricane, then this disease is a tornado.”

This new species of Hantavirus is now known as the Sin Nombre virus (means “without a name”) or unofficially as the Four Corners virus, and caused what is now called HCPS, or Hantavirus cardiopulmonary syndrome.

The team’s suspicions of a new species of virus were confirmed after the team was visited by one Navajo physician and a respected elder, who told them that the Navajo people had experienced an unusually wet spring. The elder has been said to have said, “When the spring is wet, it means many pinion nuts grow on the trees. When there are many pinion nuts, along come many mice. The Navajo are not fond of mice. If you wake up at night and one is on your bed, you must get up, wash, burn your pajamas, and burn the bed clothes. This is ancient belief and practice.”

“Why would you burn your bed clothes if you woke up and saw a mouse?” a team member asked, feeling it to be somewhat extreme.

“Because if startled, a mouse will urinate, and over many years the people figured out that you could get sick if this happened.”

With this tidbit of traditional knowledge, the researchers began collecting deer mice. While the mice themselves were healthy, the team soon figured out that the virus was being excreted in the urine and feces of the mice. The researchers asked where the sick people had lived, and went to their homes. They found evidence of mice. What had happened was that the urine and feces would dry up and disintegrate, and if you swept the floor, you would get this dust in your face and breathe it in, and the virus would re-activate.

Interestingly enough, in Navajo culture, mice are revered because they brought life to the world by spreading seeds. Yet they are also thought to belong to the night world, whereas humans belong to the day world, and the two must remain apart. Night world creatures were thought to have dangerous powers, and so were traditionally always prohibited. From this, mice were to be kept out of houses and away from food, and any contacted clothing items were to be burned.

These Navajo beliefs about mice are surprisingly in tune with modern epidemiology. One medicine woman in Monument Valley has called mice “bearers of illness from ancient times.” The Navajo word for mouse, ‘na’atoosi’, means “the one that sucks on things”, the implication being that it leaves behind its saliva. “The illness spreads in the air,” the medicine woman told him. “In a closed room, the power of the mouse would choose the strongest and best person in the house, then take over and destroy them if it got in their eyes or nose or mouth.”

27 of the first 45 cases of the illness resulted in death. By the time the outbreak was contained and controlled, it had appeared in 12 states, from Oregon to Texas. As of February of 2006, only 32 cases of Hantavirus have been seen in North America. The Navajo people’s part in the “cure” has never been officially recognized, but is an interesting example of traditional knowledge being utilized in our modern times.

~ by Chris Hibbard on October 31, 2008.

3 Responses to “The Four Corners Outbreak”

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  3. […] told investigators at the time that they avoid deer mice, as they were believed to cause illness, especially after rains led to bumper crops of the seeds eaten by the mice. The 1993 outbreak followed such […]

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