The Idea Behind
The idea of a plague ship is neither new nor a fictional creation. It goes back hundreds and hundreds of years, even before the Middle Ages. Early on in European history, when a contagious disease would ravage entire populations, a number of quarantines were devised in an attempt to halt the spread of the deadly plague. One such device was the plague ship, which carried either the dead or the people dying with infectious disease so as not to infect other members of society. Envision these ships as floating isolation wards from which there was no hope of survival. Those aboard would be allowed to die at sea to prevent spread of the deadly plague to large populations ashore. The novel Plague Ship takes place in today’s world. A plague ship in modern times!! Impossible, you say. With all the marvelous advances available in medical care, it’s unthinkable. Well, you’d better think again, because it’s not only possible, it’s quite probable. Allow me to show you how it would happen.
First, envision the modern-day cruise liners, then the repeated outbreaks of the norovirus aboard these great ships which have been widely reported in the news media. Now this norovirus is a nasty little bug that spreads like wildfire among the thousands of passengers, causing moderately severe nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. It’s a very uncomfortable disease, resulting in misery and ruining one’s vacation, but the disease is self-limiting and only lasts for a matter of days. And it does not kill.
But suppose the virus does kill! Now envision the same luxury liner with its thousands of passengers, all of whom will serve as contagious reservoirs for this lethal micro organism. Keep in mind that there’s no escape, no place to hide from this virus. Passengers are rapidly coming down with a fatal illness that has a quick onset and kills in a matter of days. Symptom wise, it resembles the influenza in the Great Flu Epidemic of 1918, but this version of the virus is far more deadly, with a kill rate approaching 100%. Would such a ship be allowed to make port? Never! Bringing the dead ashore, even with the most careful handling, would be exceptionally dangerous, with each corpse capable of initiating an epidemic that would spread and spread. And what about the thousands of terribly ill, highly contagious passengers? The ICUs in hospitals across America are usually filled to capacity as is, and even if there were such beds available, the vast majority of ICUs are not set up to be strict isolation wards. In essence, the medical system in America could not begin to cope with the thousands of critically ill, highly contagious patients, and bringing the ship and its passengers ashore would almost surely set off a worldwide pandemic. But this could never happen, the reader thinks, because there is no such virus. I assure you there is, and this horrific virus is just waiting for the right circumstances to set it loose. This micro organism is the H5N1 bird flu virus, which has a very high kill rate and for which there is no remedy. The world knows of this virus and takes some comfort in the fact that the virus, which resides in birds, only seems to infect poultry workers who are repeatedly exposed to large doses of the H5N1 micro organism. But this comfort is about to disappear. Researchers in the Netherlands and at the University of Wisconsin have shown that a simple change in the virus’ surface coat can convert it into a highly contagious virus that could easily spread from one human to the next. This research is so controversial and potentially dangerous that scientific journals have been urged not to publish the blueprint for creating this new bird virus. Just imagine if it fell into the hands of terrorists! And equally disturbing, the modest change in the virus induced by these scientists could also easily occur in nature as a result of a simple, spontaneous mutation.
So now we have the perfect setup for the novel Plague Ship. A flock of geese is flying from Europe across the Atlantic to the USA. One of the flock is infected with the newly mutated bird flu virus. The bird becomes so weak it can no longer fly and it crashes onto the deck of the luxury liner Grand Atlantic. It’s found by a well-intentioned 12-year-old boy who thinks the bird has been injured and will recover with time. So the little boy takes the sick bird below deck into a warm area by the ship’s generators and tries to nurse it back to health, but the bird continues to cough virus-laden droplets that splash onto the boy’s face and lips. And large numbers of these highly infectious droplets float up into the ship’s ventilation system. It’s now only a matter of days before one passenger after another becomes infected with the horrific virus and begin to die. The number of sick increases by the hundreds, and the infected corpses pile up. To prevent the lethal virus from starting a catastrophic pandemic, the ship is placed under a strict Federal quarantine and must remain at sea indefinitely.
Thus, the luxury liner Grand Atlantic becomes a modern-day plague ship which will not be allowed to make port…ever.