by Genese Sodikoff
There is the nightmare of fecundity and the nightmare of the multitude. There is the nightmare of uncontrolled bodies and the nightmare of inside our bodies and all over our bodies. There is the nightmare of unguarded orifices and the nightmare of vulnerable places. There is the nightmare of foreign bodies in our bloodstream and the nightmare of foreign bodies in our ears and our eyes and under the surface of our skin.
—Hugh Raffles, Insectopedia
I am writing anthropological stories of zoonosis, disease that spills over from animals to humans and then potentially spreads person-to-person. A zoonosis may erupt into an alarming epidemic (Ebola, HIV/AIDS), or may idle in a reservoir host as an ever-present threat (rabies, Lyme disease, hantavirus). Insects often vector these diseases by sucking up the tainted blood of an animal and injecting it into human skin. Zoonosis can encompass parasitic infections too, such as when larvae afloat in the drinking water or nestled in the litter box penetrate our bodies and mature into worms that make us sick. By some definitions, zoonosis and vector-borne diseases are distinct categories, even though viruses and bacteria introduced by insects into human populations may have originally been lifted from an animal.
Beyond the role of vector, there's another kind of insect that acts more as a disease server. It wears pathogens like foundation, coated with bacteria, viruses, fungi, and larval cysts, as it goes about its business. Chief among these is the cockroach, whose glossy cuticle teams with unwholesome microbes. Since the cockroach does not convey pathogens from vertebrate animals to humans, it does not transmit zoonotic disease, properly understood. Instead it traffics pathogens that are just out there, free floating in the dwellings and detritus of humanity, and deposits them on our food and our wounds. Cockroaches are responsible for introducing Staphylococcus into hospitals and spreading antibiotic resistance bacteria. They sprinkle kitchen counters and cabinets with Salmonella, Shigella, and E. coli. They truck Hepatitis A from sewers into homes. If that isn't enough, their odiferous droppings and sloughed-off skins trigger asthma attacks. The list goes on.