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).
It’s not often that you encounter a graph and you think, “Wow! My god, that is a spectacular graph!” I have such a graph for you, reader, and it just so happens to be about gonorrhea. I know what you’re thinking, “she can really pick ‘em, huh? Exceptional taste in data presentation.”
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1988, by all accounts, did not go as well as they had anticipated. The locals were unsupportive of their efforts against the Mujahideen, the notoriously craggy terrain regularly chewed through soldiers’ boots, the Soviet army was frequently unable to provide suitable equipment, food and water to its own troops, and so on.
I was peering through back issues of Emerging Infectious Diseases as one typically does (amiright? right?) and found a real gem of a letter. A French physician wrote of a special patient that had recently visited his practice, an 83-year old Parisian gentleman complaining of fatigue and weight loss. Upon clinical examination, he discovered the man had hyper-eosinophilia (high numbers of granulocytes, a type of white blood cells) indicating that something might be a bit off – either an allergic reaction or some sort of infection (1). A series of tests were run, including a stool sample, but nothing definitive was detected.
In the early 20th century, the Rockefeller Foundation embarked upon a massive public-health campaign that radically changed the economic landscape of the Southeastern United States. A parasite, the hookworm Necator americanus, not only had been leeching Southerners of their blood and good health but also of their agricultural productivity and wealth.
I love this picture of a female lone start tick and her enormous egg mass not just because of the striking imagery, but because it confronts the viewer with a major difficulty commonly encountered in tick and tick-borne disease control – reducing the dangers of a relatively small but fast reproducing species capable of stealthy and lethal infection. Many public health and entomology initiatives focus on mosquitoes but I’ve always found ticks to be the more fascinating arthropod. They’ve got that essential “creepy” factor but they’re also prodigious reproducers and can transmit a slew of truly nasty diseases. Renewed interest for public health practitioners in these creatures stems from the growing problem of habitat change that is resulting in increasing numbers of habitats and climates well-suited to ticks.