Category: History

Imported Goods: Dengue’s Return to the United States

By Rebecca Kreston | November 26, 2013 4:20 pm

Successful World War II-era campaigns to eradicate dengue has kept the United States free from the mosquito-borne virus for almost forty years but the virus is making a comeback and we have globalization to thank: an increased flow in international travel to and from tropical destinations are causing isolated outbreaks in Hawaii, Texas, and Florida. Just last week, Texan public health officials confirmed 18 cases of dengue in the southernmost tip of Texas and a recently discovered case in Long Island, NY suggesting that the virus, dubbed “breakbone fever” for its excruciating aches and pains, is gaining an unwelcome foothold in the States.

Over 380 cases of imported dengue virus were recorded for the year 2013 as of November 19th. Pink counties indicate positive test findings, whereas yellow counties are indicative of negative test findings. Image: US Geological Survey/Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

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Caution to the Wind: Dirty Horns are the Clarion Call for Microbes

By Rebecca Kreston | November 14, 2013 6:20 pm

The professional musician who follows her dream of performing on the stage is greeted by an array of unusual occupational hazards. These are not limited to those late night hours spent in bars exposed to cigarette smoke and aggressive groupies but the risks of carpal tunnel, hoarseness, hearing loss, and the longterm effects of strange sleeping schedules as well. For those that provide their marching bands, funk joints, and jazz ensembles with that crucial brass sound, however, they may be at additional risk from a tiny threat hiding within their very own instrument.

What could be hiding in this tenor saxophone? Image: Holbox.

What could be hiding in this tenor saxophone? Image: Holbox.

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Halloween’s Debt to a Demonic Virus

By Rebecca Kreston | October 31, 2013 2:50 pm

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.

A woodcut from 1512 of an attacking werewolf by the German painter and printmaker Lucas Cranach the Elder. Image: Gotha, Herzogliches Museum (Landesmuseum).

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Plague It Again, Sam: Plague in the Twenty-First Century

By Rebecca Kreston | October 29, 2013 8:30 am

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.”

An image of a brown female Xenopsylla cheopis flea, responsible for transmission of Yersinia pestis, otherwise known as plague

A female Xenopsylla cheopis flea, known as the “oriental rat flea,” one of the major vectors for transmission of the bacterium Yersinia pestis, the causative agent of plague. Image: CDC/ World Health Organization.

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The Public Health Legacy of the 1976 Swine Flu Outbreak

By Rebecca Kreston | September 30, 2013 8:30 am

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.

President Gerald Ford receiving the swine flu vaccine from his White House physician, Dr. William Lukash on October 14, 1976. Image: David Hume Kennerly. Source: Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum.

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Valley Fever, The Archaeologist’s Scourge

By Rebecca Kreston | September 9, 2013 8:00 am

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. 

A photomicrograph showing scattered strains of arthroconidia of the fungus Coccidioides immitis.

A photomicrograph of the arthroconidia of Coccidioides immitis showing their characteristic barrel shape. Image: CDC/Dr. Lucille K. Georg.

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Microbial Misadventures: Fingers, Flies, & That Old Pinkeye

By Rebecca Kreston | July 27, 2013 6:50 pm

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.

A birds-eye view of an illustration of the eye gnat Hippelates pusio

An illustration of the Hippelates pusio eye gnat. H. pusio derive nourishment from eye secretions and are most prevalent during the warm, summer months. Eye gnats are mechanical vectors in the transmission of species of Haemophilus bacterial organisms that are responsible for causing outbreaks of seasonal infective conjunctivitis. Image: CDC.

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Asymmetric (Gender) Warfare & Japan’s Rubella Virus Outbreak

By Rebecca Kreston | July 15, 2013 6:08 pm

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).

Black and white image of rubella viruses

A transmission electron micrograph (TEM) showing an assemblage of rubella virions. Image: Dr. Erskine Palmer, CDC.

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The Bestial Virus: The Infectious Origins of Werewolves, Zombies & Vampires

By Rebecca Kreston | July 11, 2013 12:45 pm

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.

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Body Horrors Talks Disease & Society on Skeptically Speaking

By Rebecca Kreston | July 8, 2013 10:05 am

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.

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Body Horrors looks at the history, anthropology and geography of infectious diseases and parasites.

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