Requisitioned from farmers, blitzed with anthrax-laden bombs in the 1940s, and made inhospitable to human and animal life for decades, the tiny Scottish island of Gruinard now serves as home to a flock of healthy sheep and a disreputable monument to the birth of biological warfare. The research conducted at Gruinard during the second World War was the very first of its kind, providing proof of concept of a natural microorganism that could be massively weaponized to inflict environmental damage and human fatalities.
This presidential election has been notable in many regards, but perhaps most conspicuously in the preoccupation of the media with the health of the Democratic and Republican candidates. At no other time has the American public scrutinized and debated the medical fitness and stamina of the two rival candidates. In celebration of today’s grand political tradition, Election Day, the health of the inaugural president will be discussed, the gentleman whose serene gaze graces both the quarter-dollar coin and one dollar bill, he of cherry tree and hippo teeth fame, survivor of more than a half a dozen deadly plagues: George Washington.
A massive heat wave in the tundra of northern Siberia has ushered a twentieth century anthrax outbreak into the modern age. Over the past two months, the population of the isolated Yamal-Nenets region has been caught off guard by a pair of unprecedented emergencies, first in the form of a punishing heat wave with temperatures reaching 95F (35C), quickly followed by an anthrax outbreak as the 75-year-old corpses of infected reindeer have thawed from their permafrost biohazard coffins.
In September of 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, marking the beginning of World War II in Europe. By the war’s end in 1945, Poland had suffered the deaths of more than five and a half million citizens – a fifth of her pre-war population – with the majority of these the victims of war crimes at the hands of the Germans. A large community in southeastern Poland, however, escaped persecution and the horrors of deportation and death thanks to an ingenious ruse employed by two Polish physicians. With the help of a sham “vaccine,” Drs. Eugene Lazowski and Stanisław Matulewicz fabricated a fictional epidemic that would save the lives of thousands.
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.”
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.
Last week, the State Department performed a small but smart gesture towards countering the continued outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa by releasing a video featuring President Barack Obama speaking to the people of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Nigeria.
The public health game is a tough one to play. How do you achieve educating and transforming the public’s behavior for the common good without coming off as a bully or dour spoil-sport? The stakes are impossible: The indifferent audience, the management of the reproachful “tsk-tsk, you should know better” tone, and there’s only so many ways to proselytize a message of “getting one’s act together.” And where’s the cash for such endeavors?
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.
For something that grows so carelessly and freely on our fruits and breads, mass producing the white mold and its hidden wonder drug penicillin was devilishly difficult. After Alexander Fleming’s accidental discovery of a bacteria-killing mold contaminating his cultures of Staphylococcus aureus, it languished as a laboratory parlor trick until World War II and the desperate need for treatments to fight bacterial infections became quickly apparent (1).