Category: History

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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A Formula for Hate: Captain Planet & the Planeteer’s HIV Episode

By Rebecca Kreston | June 28, 2013 1:45 pm

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.

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Alchemists Gone Bad: What You Should Know About Biological Warfare

By Rebecca Kreston | June 11, 2013 6:45 pm

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.

A 1942 American propaganda poster derived from President Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech following the Pearl Harbor attacks. The poster, and other forms of PSAs that followed, are exemplary of the domestic sacrifices asked of Americans in the face of war – even with the possibility of nuclear and biological warfare after WWII. Image: Library of Congress. Click for source.

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Today’s Google Doodle Honors the Petri Dish

By Rebecca Kreston | May 31, 2013 1:05 pm

It is the 161th birthday of the German microbiologist Julius Richard Petri, whom we can thank for those low-tech but indispensable tools of the microbiology lab: the petri dish. Google honors Petri‘s birthday today with their lovely Google Doodle riffing on his invaluable discovery.

The Google Doodle for May 31, 2013 in honor of Julius Richard Petri. Image: Google.

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