[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]
Scientific investigation usually comes under scrutiny when unexpected biological catastrophes occur. It is pressured into finding solutions even if the initial catastrophe is not entirely science related. A good example of this would be Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), a mysterious neurological disease, with visibly distressing symptoms, that infected British dairy cattle in the 1980s. The way it affected entire herds led the media to speculate that it was some kind of horizontally transmitted contagion.
The public demanded answers to several questions. What was causing the epidemic, could it be transmitted to humans and was there a cure? Pressure was on scientific investigation to provide answers.
Fortunately, disease diagnosis was fairly rapid as a significant amount of work on Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs) already existed. This was as a consequence of the Nobel awarded research of Stanley Prusiner, who in 1972 began investigating a human form of TSE, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD). Following a decade of research on human forms of the disease, Prusiner discovered that the causative agent for CJD was a single protein, which he named a prion, an acronym derived from ‘proteinaceous infectious particle’. Further research found that it could be transmitted though contact with spinal nerve tissue or blood-related products and that there was no known cure.
There was some evidence that TSEs could be associated with the consumption of diseased tissues but none that showed that the Bovine variant of this disease (affecting members of the Bovidae family including sheep and cattle) could cross the species barrier to humans. Inevitably, this query was gruesomely answered when a variant of the disease, vCJD, emerged in humans.
The media was quick to criticise how the Government, and their appointed scientists, had conducted risk reporting and disease control measures. The mishandling of the crisis provoked controversies because it was influenced by a number of conflicting interests. The agricultural community and commercial retailers were suffering financially. While, health officials and consumers were concerned about public safety. The Government had to find a mutual accord that would satisfy all parties. This conflict of interests led to anxieties that attracted media attention and fuelled public debate. Spurred on by public criticism and armed with available scientific knowledge, the Government and agricultural community eventually managed to control the BSE epidemic.
The number of people physically affected were fewer then anticipated but those few victims suffered the most appalling neurological degeneration. Coverage of this by the media greatly impacted social concern. The overall loss of economy to the British beef industry was extreme, with many export restrictions remaining in place twenty years after the initial outbreak.
If science-related knowledge had not been able to contain an epidemic of vCJD could alternative solutions have been found within religion?
Despite the lack of scientific knowledge in the Bible, following rules and regulations stated in the Old Testament, it would have been possible to contain some infectious diseases and zoonoses. The Hebrews were only permitted to eat certain animals, such as those that had cloven hooves, stomaches divided into two parts and that chewed the cud. Animals that did not fulfil this description, such as pigs, camels and hares, were not eaten. Additionally, animals that were permitted to be eaten but had died of natural causes were not to be touched or eaten. In the book of Leviticus there are strict regulations in dealing with diseased animals [Lev. 11.39-40]:
If one of the animals that you use as food dies, then anyone who touches the carcase will be unclean until evening. And if anyone eats the dead meat he must wash his clothes, but he will still be unclean until evening; anyone who carries the carcase must wash his clothes, but he will still be unclean until evening.
Those individuals that had come in contact with dead animals were isolated to ensure that infections did not spread through the community. This provides an unexpected example of how, by following practices stated in the Old Testament, disease transmission could possibly be prevented thereby protecting the welfare of the community.