Just as we jetsetters and nomads wander the wide world’s winding roads and byways by foot, on horseback, atop a bicycle or packed into an automobile, so too do infectious diseases make use of our ever-improving networks of thoroughfares. They ride along in human bodies, their journeys fueled by our social mobility and contact, two factors unavoidably intensified anytime we embark upon a voyage. But as these pathogens travel new routes and encounter new bodies, they can change and mutate. Luckily for researchers, by examining commonly traveled routes where we once naively believed that only humans trod, the active evolution and epidemiology of a pathogen can be revealed, providing insight into the development and patterns of disease affecting mankind.
In the twentieth century, men toiling in British and American coal mines relied on a primitive alert system for imperceptible dangers: the bright canary bird. Miners toted the caged birds into the depths of the earth to serve as early warnings against poisonous and potentially fatal gas leaks. If the tiny birds suddenly slumped in their cages due to the presence of odorless and colorless carbon monoxide, miners would beat a hasty retreat to safer, cleaner air.
It’s one of the easiest ways to care for your health, a ritual we participate in daily: brushing those osseous outcroppings, our teeth. For those of us who heed the pleas of our dentists, flossing is a part of our routines, too. But the state of affairs of our glistening maws – the density of plaque, the presence of gingivitis, a full set of chompers – is important beyond mere aesthetics. Good oral fitness, particularly steps taken to limit the bacterial status quo, plays an important role in the goings-on of our body as a whole; a dirty mouth – and not the kind prone to sailor-like profanity – can provide important clues as to how susceptible you are to heart attacks and strokes.
Medicine is an imperfect science, its history shot through with barbaric and dubious practices from grave robbing to bloodletting. Since even before the time of that father of modern medicine, it can seem that physicians have more often violated Hippocrates’ decree “above all, do no harm” than abided by it.
Microbial Misadventures is a recurring series on Body Horrors looking at instances and incidents where human meets microbe in novel and unusual circumstances that challenge our assumptions about how infections are spread.
Shout “fire” in a crowded room and watch the occupants fly for the exits. Speak the word “malaria” and watch as all within earshot reach for the nearest can of DEET. The incontrovertible fact of malaria’s relationship with mosquitos is one that has been known since Sir Ronald Ross discovered the parasite nesting within the belly of a mosquito in 1897. Such is the natural order, an incontestable necessity of the protozoan parasite’s life cycle. Humans, however, are rather adept at bucking that system – see cronuts, labradoodles, and the college bowl ranking system for examples. Also due to the interference of mankind, as a 1995 Taiwanese medical mystery proved, malaria can indeed be spread without the assistance of their obnoxious arthropod cronies.
Hanuman is a pivotal and memorable character in the Hindu epic poem, the Ramayana. Known for his faithful devotion to Rama, the monkey-king is famous for rescuing Lord Rama’s bride Sita after she is kidnapped by the demon king Ravana, all the while defeating his demon army as commander of his monkey army. Hanuman is revered throughout south and southeast Asia not only for his devotion to Rama, but also for his steadfast spirit, his indefatigable strength, and his noble humility. He is also something of a rogue – the Coyote, the Loki, the trickster of Hindu mythology, the mischievous troublemaking deity with a heart of gold and a glint in his eye. Read More
Our demons have their origins in our dread of death and the unknown. Today is Halloween, a time for costuming ourselves and confronting those fears (and, most importantly, for outsized consumption of sweets). For those of us celebrating Halloween disguised as vampires, werewolves and zombies, we owe a great debt to one of the world’s deadliest and most feared zoonotic viruses, rabies. This past summer I wrote about the fascinating microbial origins of some of our most enduring humanoid monsters in “The Bestial Virus: The Infectious Origins of Werewolves, Zombies & Vampires.”
Next week, the hot and happening place to be is in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as millions of Muslims gather to complete their pilgrimage to the sacred city of Mecca, a journey known as the Hajj. For public health practitioners within Saudi Arabia and beyond its borders, the Hajj poses serious challenges in the prevention and control of infectious diseases among the millions of faithful worshipers who seek to complete one of the five pillars of Islam.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is home to one of the largest and most biologically diverse rain forests in the world, featuring an incredible variety of animals including bonobos, forest elephants, and mountain gorillas. The country is also the stomping ground of a staggering array of microbial organisms and the region is well known as a wellspring of novel human pathogens, some with big household names and others little known. Some of these diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, have emerged as recognizably major pandemics; others, such as Ebola virus, have been limited to small, localized outbreaks; others still, such as the mosquito-borne Chikungunya virus, pose the risk of becoming new threats to global health.
Maryn McKenna has an unsettling and sobering article at Nature examining the the emergence of carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae. Since 2002, this large family of bacteria, gram-negative organisms that include many symbionts as well as the gut-dwelling Escherica coli and Klebsiella species that cause hospital infections, are increasingly in possession of a carbapenem-resistance gene rending our best antibiotics useless.