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.
The Nuremberg Code was drafted in 1947 following the appalling revelations of human experimentation committed in Nazi concentration camps. The overarching goal of the Code was to establish a set of rules for the ethical conduct of research using human subjects, guaranteeing that the rights and welfare of such participants would be protected. Two important principles guide and define this Code: the concept of voluntary, informed consent and that no experiment shall be conducted in which “there is an a priori reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur.”
Forensic biology has made tremendous strides in the past few decades thanks largely to advances in DNA techniques and analysis. Genomic sequencing has generated new methods of human identification reaching far beyond fingerprints and dental records, providing crucial information in the course of investigations, valuable evidence in historical fieldwork, and personal closure in the wake of tragedy.
Ringworm is one of the most common and widespread childhood maladies. Deceptive in its naming, ringworm is no parasite but rather a fairly mild, though atrociously itchy, fungal skin infection that affects 300 million people worldwide. An infection with the contagious Tinea capitis fungus is usually summarily dismissed by means of antifungal medications, but for decades prior to the discovery of such cures in the 1950s, infections with ringworm and other species of fungus were as intractable and as challenging as their bacterial counterparts. The mid-twentieth century, as modern an era as it seems, marked the early days of effective antimicrobial treatments, and though practical pharmaceuticals for bacterial, viral, and fungal afflictions were on the horizon, they were still far from universally available.
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.
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.
Chagas disease, caused by the protozoan parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, continues to make inroads in the United States and physicians are both unprepared to diagnose and under equipped to treat cases of the disease in their patients.
Chagas is a rare disease in the United States and has typically been associated with immigration from Central and South America, where the disease is endemic. The dynamics of the disease are changing, however, and strong evidence continues to emerge indicating that local infection is occurring among the American population, particularly in the southern states.