When Harvey’s Flu ended in 2039, most countries felt lessons had been learned. If another disease arose and threatened to reach pandemic status, proven precautions were in place to lessen the spread and quickly contain the outbreak. They were ready for another flu. That isn’t what came.
Ethno-botantist Adam Paul first documented the use of a fungus by rebels in the Darien Gap in 2040. The fungus was found in Central and South America, growing on soy plants genetically engineered to be resistant to pests. The fungus, when dried, pulverized, and ingested produced a foul taste in the mouth and sores, both of which were bad enough to make those afflicted abstain from eating until the symptoms passed in four to five days.
The rebels were using this natural toxin to incapacitate anyone interfering in the drug trade flowing through the rough trails they’d created in this once impassable region. Mr. Paul reported rumors of a few deaths from this strange fungus, but determined these were due to starvation or dehydration. He theorized this was a new type of fungus. His report garnered brief interest and was then forgotten until 2045.
Brazil averages 50,000 cases of leprosy every year. This figure has remain consistent for decades. The first documented case of HALO occurred in a leprosy center in northern Brazil. A woman died after complaining of a metallic taste in her mouth and cankers, followed by a swift worsening of her leprosy symptoms which led to her death as a result of multiple broken bones penetrating her lungs, liver, and finally her heart. The case was dismissed as an accidental death due to an unreported fall down the center’s stairs despite the nuns swearing no such incident had occurred. It was only after HALO was officially diagnosed that this unnamed woman originally from Columbia became known as the first verifiable case, though many theorize that there were others before based on a brief note in her file stating her children had died in a similar fashion after her husband returned from an overland journey to Panama, which has been interpreted to mean he had been escorting drugs through the Darien.
HALO stands for Halitosectic Autoimmune Leprotic Osteonecrosis. It is a disease like no other, a new class of illness that the world of 2045 was unprepared for. Admittedly, the United States was still reeling from the devastation of Hurricane Lempert in 2042, distract with analyzing possible scenarios to save Miami and areas of Florida while dealing with the enormous cost of the losses. The world had recovered from Harvey’s Flu. Another potential pandemic did not seem possible.
Much of the information on the beginnings of HALO came after the outbreak once it was recognized to be a disease and not a poison or weird accidental death or multiple diseases affecting a single individual as was initially theorized. Of course, in the aftermath of HALO the information left to sift through was vast and unorganized and there simply were not that many people to undertake the task, not when society had to be restored as well.
The organism discovered by Mr. Paul used by the rebels controlling the Darien Gap was not a fungus. Further study showed that it was a lichen, itself mutated to thrive on the genetically modified soy plants. This lichen specie is comprised of a fungus and a cyanobacteria, one that when ingested mixed with the Mycobacterium lepromatosis bacteria which causes leprosy, and became something new. It became a potent bacteria laced fungus that spread to its new host in deadly profusion. Few people had any resistance to this new class of disease and those infected early, before it was realized that a fungicide and an antibiotic were needed, had little hope of survival.
The initial complaints of a metallic taste and cankers were the initial sign of infection. The bad breath associated with this stage were the lichen diaspores dispersing to infect new hosts. The lichen, named Necrosos Mycocharrianin, entered the bloodstream of the infected individual causing two separate issues. The first was a sudden onset of leprosy-like symptoms. The second is the lichen itself colonizing the bone tissue, weakening it to the point the bones collapse and break, often puncturing organs. Death results from loss of blood and punctured organs rather from the lichen itself or from starvation or dehydration as a result of the initial symptoms of mouth cankers, which are usually severe. Diaspores were exhaled and shed in blood during the entire infection, including after death when any body not burnt would release thousands.
No cure has ever been found.
Every disease has a few individuals who are resistant and a larger pool of people who will recover. HALO was the same. Though the disease ripped through populations before anyone even understood what caused it, or believed it really was a disease, there were some who survived.
The returned missionaries from the leprosy center in Brazil spread HALO on their route home and quickly passed the disease to family, friends, and church members. These small outbreaks of symptoms similar to those experienced at the center were the first warning that HALO was not food poisoning, tainted water, or mildew. By the time WHO, the CDC, and other health agencies realized they were dealing with an unknown new contagion, and put into place the quarantine procedures developed during Harvey’s Flu, infections of HALO spread due to airline travel had already erupted in London, Manchester, Berlin, Madrid, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. HALO was a pandemic before what caused it was even known.
The world panicked.
City wide quarantines went into effect, though without knowing the cause of HALO attempts to contain it were trial and error with a large cost when errors were made. Health organizations raced against a disease that grew exponentially while governments attempted to contain desperate and frightened citizens. In what felt like a day to those who survived, but in actuality took almost a month, the world collapsed into chaos. Broken quarantines, riots, overthrown governments, and more than a few governments that simply abandoned their countries accelerated the disease.
The unknown is the most frightening. Add to that a disease that killed in a painful and horrifying manner, and the reactions of the populace to HALO is understandable. Though it is easy to wonder if what was done to protect loved ones and oneself was not worse than the actual disease.
Actual statistics of the months HALO ravaged earth are nearly impossible to reconstruct. It is known that HALO spread quickly due to the lack of understanding that is spread through diaspores as well as through contact with infected fluids. Sitting in a room with someone exhibiting the early stages of mouth sores was as likely to pass infection as sharing a drink with them.
But not everyone died from it.
There were so many deaths from other causes, starvation, dehydration, murder, and suicide, that the actual death rate of HALO is difficult to determine. Estimates are between 60 and 70%. When the chaotic months of HALO passed in 2045 and the world took stock of where it stood, the population had fallen from a barely recovered 7.5 billion after Harvey’s Flu in 2039 to 3.2 billion after HALO, all living in a world designed for nearly 8 billion. Society had to recreate itself.
But first, it had to burn the dead and come to terms with the epidemic of brutality that swept the planet hand in hand with HALO.