- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 26, 2002

People died like flies of the bacterial bubonic plague, which once wiped out more than half of the European continent's population. Centuries later, young drug addicts and homosexuals in the United States died at an alarming rate. The cause was the HIV virus.

In both cases, there were survivors in the midst of raging disease. The lucky ones did nothing any differently from those who died. How did they make it?

The "Mystery of the Black Death," the first of five new episodes from PBS' "Secrets of the Dead" series, explores a link between plague immunity and HIV resistance.

It's a fascinating premise, and the program provides interesting research, illuminating graphics of the plague bacteria and HIV virus attacking white blood cells, and well-done re-enactments of victims squirming in pain from horrible symptoms, which included bursting welts, high fever and extreme thirst.

Unfortunately, the show poses more questions than it answers and is unable to tie together all its loose ends.

The program starts out in sleepy and drearily gray and rainy Eyam, a village in Northern England. This little town was hard hit by the plague in the 1600s. (The plague broke out in Europe at various times between the 14th and 17th centuries.)

Sickness and death erupted when a tailor opened a London shipment of fabric, which was infested with infected fleas.

Soon, the disease engulfed the village. To prevent further spreading, the entire town was quarantined. Town officials assumed the sick villagers would wipe each other out.

But they were wrong.

Three hundred and fifty years later, Dr. Steven O'Brien, a geneticist from the National Institutes of Health is studying why some individuals who came in contact with the plague recovered from the "Black Death" or never fell ill at all.

Dr. O'Brien and other scientists discovered that those who were spared had an abnormal version of a gene known as CCR5-delta 32. This mutation provided them with protection against the plague.

A study of the current population of Eyam, many of whom are direct descendants of the plague victims of 300 years ago, showed that 14 percent had this mutation, a high percentage in genetic terms, Dr. O'Brien says.

The program then does an abrupt fast-forward when the audience is introduced to Steve Crohn, a homosexual man who came of age in 1970s California. This transition is jarring.

Mr. Crohn has lost 70 or 80 sexual partners and friends to AIDS, and yet he has never become HIV-positive himself.

One researcher, Bill Paxton of the Aaron Diamond Center for AIDS Research in New York, takes a sample of Mr. Crohn's immune cells and bombards them with 3,000 times the amount of virus that typically causes infection, but HIV seems completely unable to penetrate Mr. Crohn's immunity.

Genetic testing shows that Mr. Crohn has not one, but two copies of the delta-32 mutation, the same as the 14 percent segment of Eyam's population

What does this mean? Are the plague-resistant Eyamers also HIV resistant? What percentage of Americans are believed to be resistant to HIV (or the plague)? Are Europeans and those of European ancestry more resistant to HIV than, for example, Asian or African populations?

The link between plague resistance and HIV immunity is hinted at but never clearly developed.

In the meantime, the show provides too much footage of one of the doctors driving around in the gray, dreary, albeit beautiful English countryside.

It also has too many scenes of researchers and doctors discussing genetics, mutations and disease. The worst part is that the doctors re-enact conversations for the camera. What becomes painfully apparent more than scientific discovery is that doctors are doctors, not actors.

The lack of answers is especially unsatisfying because the research question that "Mystery of the Black Death" poses is fascinating and we really want to know more. Lingering thoughts and questions are fine, but in this case they so outweigh the answers that it becomes frustrating.

If definitive scientific research is lacking, then say so. But throwing the information out, presenting it as earth-shattering, without fully exploring what effects this might have among today's population doesn't seem fair. Whom are we going to ask?

WHAT: "Mystery of the Black Death," part one of five in the "Secrets of the Dead" series.


WHEN: 8 p.m. on Wednesday

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide