“A lot kills, a little cures,” wrote the father of toxicology, and botulinum toxin is the poster child for this important pharmaceutical concept. Depending on the dosage and route, this potent bacterial toxin is either a devastating foodborne poison – one of the most deadly toxins known to man, capable of causing paralyzing death – or a wildly popular wrinkle antidote, harnessed and wielded in the pursuit of clearer skin.
The Pacific broad tapeworm thrives in the guts of the sea lions that frolic in the waves of the Pacific Ocean, has been identified in the preserved poop of Peruvians mummified some five millennia ago, and is now making its way to seafood-loving Europeans through the briny conduits of the world-wide commercial fish trade.
Smallpox has haunted man for almost as long as we have been walking this earth. The variola virus that causes the deadly pox had been known to liquidate entire communities, towns, and cities since antiquity, stalking along trade routes and capitalizing upon human behavior and patterns of movement. Egyptian mummies unearthed from their tombs bear the pocked faces of fortunate survivors; Chinese emperors, Indian peasants, Russian Tzars, and Australian Aborigines – around the world, millions succumbed to virus in the centuries before the discovery of an effective vaccine.
It was the work of the lunar god, a “disease of the moon,” thought the Mesopotamians. The Romans attributed it to demonic possession. Priests and peasants in the Middle Ages considered the “falling sickness” a contagious evil.
Today our understanding of seizures and epilepsy rests not with lunar cycles or the supernatural, but with scientific insights into the developing brain and the pathologies of various diseases. We now know that there are over forty different disease processes that can cause the syndrome known as epilepsy, ranging from metabolic disorders to tumors, from trauma to congenital diseases.
Tensions can run high when living with roommates. Quibbles over dishes, the rent and utilities, and even questionable hygiene practices can inflame tempers and sabotage relationships, leaving passive-aggressive notes and broken homes in their wake. There are many ways of managing a good home life within a shared household of semi-strangers, but we’ll save that for another time in another column. This is about a roommate dispute gone totally to the worms.
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.
This past May I had the pleasure to chat with Desiree Schell of the radio and podcast show Skeptically Speaking about how infectious diseases and parasites can shape society for an episode examining the impact of science and medicine on specific communities. Over at their website, you can download the hour-long episode “Community Specific Science” featuring myself, Danielle Lee and Dr. Joe Henrich and hear more about how science journalism and the social sciences are investigating the ways in which the livelihoods and health of certain groups – delineated by ethnicity, culture or religion – are affected by scientific research and medicine. Lee speaks for the first third of the episode on the state of science coverage in media that serves minority audiences, while Henrich finishes the show with his research on cultural outliers, those societies not generally considered Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, or Democratic – what Dr. Henrich refers to as WEIRD – and the state of behavioral research.
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.
I am partial to the odd tipple and, as a resident of the licentious, enabling city that is New Orleans, I’m fortunate to be adequately supported in my booze-seeking ways by the high number of bars and restaurants within stumbling distance of my front porch. But what to do for those of us prohibited from indulging in one of the world’s greatest mood modulators, for those of us, say, incarcerated in America’s prison-industrial complex? In that case, American ingenuity and tenacity wins, always: become a smalltime craft brewer and make your own.
Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo have been bedeviled by viral hemorrhagic fever outbreaks this year. Since the summer, Ebola and Marburg have appeared throughout the two verdant countries killing dozens of people.
At this very moment, I’m holding a copy of the “The Best American Science Writing Online 2012” that includes my article on Alaskan Natives, botulism and fermenting practices on page 173! The article “This Ain’t Yo Momma’s Muktuk: Fermented Seal Flipper, Botulism, Being Cold & Other Joys of Arctic Living” was selected among 721 other submissions and is published alongside 51 other knock-out articles in the sixth annual anthology of the best science writing online. Not bad odds, eh? I’ve been writing this blog for just over a year and a half now and I consider it be a privilege to be included in the ranks of some truly accomplished science journalists and bloggers. A big thank you is owed to the editors of the anthology, Bora Zivkovic and Jennifer Ouellette, for selecting me.