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.”
The plague is an old microbial foe that has haunted our cities and our ports for millennia, killing millions of people in waves of pandemics since antiquity. But Yersinia pestis no longer has the same presence, or stranglehold, in our society and seems negligible when we consider the current state of microbial affairs – increasing levels of antibiotic resistance and novel and emerging viral pathogens, just to name a couple of today’s most pressing issues. Even its moniker, “the plague,” has been appropriated for more contemporary microorganisms that appear to come from nowhere and quickly, fatally sweep through a population – SARS and HIV are prime examples of two new “plagues.”
Vaccines were once thought of as an axiomatic good, a longed-for salvation in the form of a syringe, banishing crippling and deadly infections like polio, smallpox and tetanus. But within the past few decades we have seen the emergence of anti-vaccination movements and a rise in cases of childhood diseases that are entirely preventable with a quick jab to the arm.
This past June a federal judge ordered the relocation of thousands of prisoners from two prisons in the San Joaquin Valley in California to protect imprisoned men against a small fungus, Coccidioides immitis, that could infiltrate the gated and locked Pleasant Valley and Avenal state prisons and continue to cause isolated cases of a debilitating illness, valley fever.
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.
Conjunctivitis is spread through particularly artful and gross means – the contamination of objects with eye gunk, smeared inadvertently hither and thither as a person wrestles with the itchy, gritty misery that defines what is commonly known as pinkeye. Many of us know that infectious diseases inevitably come from someone, some one, but we don’t often know from whom. Conjunctivitis is easy enough for the amateur Sherlock or epidemiologist-in-training – find the disconsolate soul with red, dripping eyes and follow the (sticky) trail.
Japan is in the midst of a rubella outbreak that has already infected over 5,000 people in just the first four months of this year. Since the early 2000s, the country has undergone cyclical five-year rubella epidemics, with community-wide outbreaks cresting in the spring and summer. But in the past two years the number of infections has surged dramatically from a hundred-odd cases every year into the thousands, and a weird epidemiological pattern has emerged thanks to a quirk in Japan’s vaccination policy in the 1970s: 77% of cases in the rubella outbreak have occurred in men over the age of 20 (1).
Rabies is one of mankind’s long-feared diseases. And rightfully so: for centuries, a bite from a crazed, slavering animal was almost always a guarantee of a slow warping of the mind and a pained, gruesome demise. A death sentence.
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.
Earth! Fire! Wind! Water! Heart! “Captain Planet and Planeteers” is a classic of 1990s television and may soon appear on the big screen as a live-action movie. The animated television series featured five earnest teenagers equipped with magical powers fighting eco-villains intent on destroying the ozone, rainforest and the wetlands and guided by the sage wisdom of Gaia, the spirit of Earth, and Captain Planet. Today, the program is recognized for its environmental “edutainment” pitch and the emerald-mulleted, square-jawed appearance of its titular superhero.
Spears. Bows and arrows. Swords. Guns. Bombs. Drones. Microbes. The evolution of weapons and forms of warfare shadows our technological advancements, from the field of metallurgy to that of microbiology.