Typhoid, then and now

I love think pieces. As it happens, pure coincidence, last week I chose to listen to a Radiolab episode on the origins of disease just as I was taking an oral typhoid vaccination booster—a week-long, 4-pill regimen. The episode, Patient Zero (updated segment) starts with the fascinating story of Typhoid Mary, a carrier of this disease who never developed symptoms. But she was a cook, and she unknowingly spread the illness to many, many people through food. We don’t hear much about typhoid in the United States; it’s nasty stuff, rooted in the bacterium Salmonella Typhi. A couple of friends have had it in recent years and were lucky to survive. And so, just as I was thinking about this, and the ways in which illnesses live and breed and spread through us as victims or hosts, I found myself listening to Patient Zero. The show takes us from typhoid to HIV to Ebola, in the search for origins. Who was the first person to contract each disease? How? Why? And can we ever really discover the beginning? Often—not always, but often—answers are found in food: what we and our fellow members of the kingdom Animalia consume.

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