We know of sleeping viruses, like that of the measles which is capable of remaining ten years in the human brain, but can a virus survive three thousand years?
The scholars and labourers who worked at Tutankhamun’s tomb were not the only ones to complain of diverse illnesses engendered by an assiduous frequentation of necropolises, Egyptian or otherwise. All archaeologists who have worked in subterranean tombs have known these sorts of maladies. Among the French egyptologists, Pr Leclan, who spent part of his existence exploring pharaonic necropolises, has noted that the dust of the tombs provokes two sorts of reactions:
– a skin reaction, skin irritation, eruption of sores on the hands, principally between the fingers;
– slight respiratory difficulties, with inflammation of the throat, little dry cough, provoked by deposits of dust on the mucuses.
These are the known symptoms of the “Copte sickness” suffered by Howard Carter and his collaborators. Pr Leclan declares:
“But these little problems do not deeply affect the health of a fit individual. They go away in a few days, as soon as one ceases to live amongst old papyrus, mummies and skeletons…”
The idea of an allergy is therefore more credible. Its parasite would be Pediculoides ventricosus. However, the Copte sickness was never really mortal and does not completely explain all these deaths in serie.
It is evident that the respiratory difficulties noted by everyone can have unfortunate repercussions for people whose lungs are already fragile. We have already said that this was the case with Lord Carnavon.
The strangest theory comes from South Africa. It does away with any idea of curse and does not retain the virus hypothesis. This time, the guilty party, or rather parties, are bats.
On 29 September 1955, John Wiles, a big strong blond man, employed by the Geological Society of Southern Rhodesia, starts out for his new place of work. A cave situated near a village called Kariba, in the middle of the Urugwe natural reserve. With the help of an engineer named Dawson and a driller named Schwartz, he has to explore the cave where, it is believed, large deposits of bat excrements are accumulated. His society envisages using this sort of “guano” to make fertilizer.
With the help of a ladder made from the roots of a fig tree, Wiles hauls himself up to the cave’s opening. He discovers that it is prolonged, underground, by a labyrinth of tunnels. He descends farther and farther… At more than one hundred metres down, he arrives at a vast room. A nauseating odour fills his nostrils. The ground is covered with a moist substance over which thousands of cockroaches and crickets are running. Attached to the vault, flattened against the walls, there are myriads of giant bats. Some of them have a breadth of sixty centimetres.
Overcoming his repugnance, Wiles gets to work. For several days, he works in the cave’s warm, humid atmosphere, continually beating away bats who brush against him with their wings. Half crawling, half sliding, he takes measures and plants rods into the layer of guano to determine its thickness. On 12 October, his work finished, Wiles goes back to the surface. He has to catch a train the next day to rejoin his family, on holiday in the town of Knysna, in the Cape province.
But firstly, he has to cash a cheque at the Kariba bank. Closing time is near. Wiles is afraid that he won’t be able to get his money. He starts to run. He has hardly run fifty metres, when his chest begins to burn. He stops, breathes deeply to catch his breath… the burning is sharper. He manages to stagger into the bank.
Night brings Wiles a bit of relief. But the next day, in the train, he becomes worse. He is suffocating. When he arrives at Knysna, after a whole day of travelling, he is unrecognizable. His wife, panicked, has to support him to his bed, onto which he collapses, incapable of moving. Then she calls a doctor who takes blood samples for analysis. Result negative: the laboratory infirms the hypotheses envisaged by the doctor, finding no trace of the region’s most frequent illnesses, yellow fever, malaria or amibian dysentery.
Wiles’ state rapidly gets worse. He can’t move, he can’t remain lying down, he is obliged to spend his days seated on his bed, his mouth open like a fish out of water. The doctor then thinks that he can diagnose a pleurisy coupled with pneumonia. But his treatment gives no result. Desperate, he decides to send his patient to one of the best South African doctors, Dr Geoffroy Dean, who directs the Port Elizabeth hospital service.
After forty-eight hours of unfruitful examinations, Dean decides to draw up a list of illnesses usually contracted by men who explore caves and other subterranean cavities. None appear to correspond to the symptoms presented by John Wiles. Suddenly, he has an idea. A few years before, while he was taking a course in the United States, he attended a conference where mention was made of a rare illness called histoplasmosis, engendered by a protozoan, histoplasma capsulatum, of which only one hundred and thirty cases were known, all of them in the Southern States.
Dean takes a series of samples from the poor Wiles whose state is growing worse every day, and sends the tubes to the United States to have them analysed. The answer comes back ten days later: probability of histoplasmosis. Dean does what he can by treating Wiles with aureomycine and penicillin… the patient is saved.
For Dean, histoplasmosis is the cave illness.
Now better known, this disease is, according to specialists, due to a microscopic mushroom which proliferates in bat guano, but also in the droppings of pigeons and domestic poultry, because these animals possess an ideal body temperature for the development of the parasite. As for all respiratory diseases, the patient is soiled by dusts, which can come from a farm, or a cave.
To be continued.