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.
The mother gazes at her naked, lethargic infant, wan with a pustular red rash dotting his chest. She’s dressed in the fashion of the day: a high-necked black blouse with leg-of-mutton sleeves, a heavy full-length skirt, a formless red feather jutting from her hat. She holds a white handkerchief to her distorted scarlet face, one arm hanging limply at her side, seemingly in despair over the lamentable circumstances that have brought her to this bare waiting room.
The plague is back, and this time it’s not thanks to far-voyaging ships or caravans traversing some distant trade routes, but to corn. This disease, caused by one of man’s oldest bacterial foes, Yersinia pestis, and spread by flea-infested rodents, is often overlooked in modern times in favor of more headline-grabbing epidemics like Ebola, HIV, and antibiotic-resistant STDs. But the plague has always kept close quarters with mankind and continues to surprise us with its adaptability.
Laissez les bons temps rouler! Tomorrow is the final and momentous hurrah of the Carnival season, which culminates with Mardi Gras, otherwise known as Fat Tuesday. In New Orleans, the city I call home, Carnival is a season of festivities, decadence, and tradition, one that is celebrated amongst neighbours and visitors alike. Our revelry is an egalitarian one – everyone is welcome to come witness and participate in Carnival. But, for over a century, just a couple of hours away from the Crescent City, there lived a community of exiles, quarantined and barred from society, who were forced to forge their own Mardi Gras traditions. In honor of the biggest party of the year, I’m republishing my article on the celebration of Mardi Gras at one of America’s last leper colonies, just a few hours up the Mississippi river in Carville, Louisiana.
The measles outbreak emerging from “the happiest place on Earth” in Anaheim, California, is grabbing headlines and provoking conversation in the media regarding how best to appeal to parents opposed to vaccines.
Using clear facts and appealing to common logic has failed, repeatedly. Blaming and shaming only seem to provoke heel-in-the-sand reactions and encourage retreat. So how does one persuasively sway opinion and convince the skeptics of the safety and utility of vaccinating against preventable diseases?
Abracadabra! Many of us are familiar with this mystical incantation. Its arcane staccato and euphonious intonation has become deeply ingrained in our language through the word’s use as a magical catchphrase. The hex was, in my childhood experience, rather useless when it came to opening locked cabinets and provoking instantaneous transformations; nothing was conjured and very little materialized except for my own disappointment. But millennia past, this word was held in reverence, and it was used for a whole other purpose altogether. Abracadabra was not a silly-sounding piece of magician’s gibberish, but the “most famous of the ancient charms or talismans employed in medicine” and a powerful invocation against a very specific and very dangerous curse: malaria.
The Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca by millions of Muslims from around the world, is one of the largest gatherings of man on the face of the earth. This annual event took place just last month with relatively little fanfare from the news media, which is, from an epidemiological standpoint, a very good thing. Every year, public health officials wring their hands at the thought of possible outbreaks caused by the global pathogen du jour capitalizing upon the convergence of millions of worshipers in the Saudi Arabian desert. SARS stole the headlines in 2009, Middle Eastern Respiratory Virus or MERS had it last year, and Ebola seemed a likely contender for this calendar year.
Mining is low on the list of enviable occupations. The hazards one faces when plying one of humanity’s most ancient professions, burrowing deep into the earth to harvest its hidden treasures in the form of precious stones and metals, range from grungy to downright gruesome. The occupation is widely considered to be one of the world’s most dangerous, and it was only in the 1950s that the mining industry in the United States finally saw fatalities due to accidents dip under a thousand a year (1).
Rose-thorn disease sounds like a malady of lovesick teenagers, an illness of romance reserved for budding Romeos and Juliets swooning from their first forays into passion and lovesickness, an affliction arising from the shocking stick and sting of heartbreak. The sweet name of this malady, however, in no way belies the actual crustiness of its symptoms.
Microbes are the omnipresent yet frequently unacknowledged adversary on the battlefield. Though microscopic in size, their very macroscopic effects can decimate armies, foil the best planned war initiatives, and change the course of history.