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.
“A lot kills, a little cures,” wrote the father of toxicology, and botulinum toxin is the poster child for this important pharmaceutical concept. Depending on the dosage and route, this potent bacterial toxin is either a devastating foodborne poison – one of the most deadly toxins known to man, capable of causing paralyzing death – or a wildly popular wrinkle antidote, harnessed and wielded in the pursuit of clearer skin.
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.
Flushing a vein with a liter of saline is standard protocol in clinics and hospitals. To receive fluids intravenously is an ubiquitous therapeutic, a common tool to alleviate many conditions, so standard that there are even businesses that offer an IV and a bag of saline as a cure for the common hangover.
Intravenous fluid resuscitation relies on the principle of replenishing our precious bodily fluids through delivery directly into the blood vessels, but where did this concept come from? How did a remedy that breaches the skin and veins, violating the sanctity of the human body to inject a liter of foreign substance enter the medical armamentarium? It has its origins in mankind’s quest to defeat a bacteria infamous for causing such prolific diarrhea that it causes fatal shock: cholera.
Epidemics do not simply appear out of nowhere. They can simmer for months, isolated within a small segment of a population, escaping the notice of the public health community before boiling over into the larger community, triggering the identification of a spreading contagion. Too often, those individuals who recognize a nascent threat of outbreak and sound the alarm do not receive the public recognition they deserve.
There’s nothing quite like syphilis. The sexually transmitted bug that sullied Christopher Columbus’ journey either to the New World or his return back to the Old – we’re still debating this grand chicken-or-egg epidemiological mystery – has deranged the minds of dictators and kings, was once a leading cause of committed hospitalizations to the psych ward, and even sparked fashion trends among members of the European royal courts who sought to cloak its debilitating, tell-tale symptoms (1).
One of the most iconic works in American art – the painting “Christina’s World” – currently hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City as a prized piece of Americana and one of the museum’s most popular exhibits. In his artwork, Andrew Wyeth, a master of American realism, honors a dear friend, a woman who is today both an icon and a true medical mystery.
Conjunctivitis, that infamous, sticky-itchy-oozy infection of the eye, can strike anywhere and anyone. For the most part, however, pink eye sticks to its preferred domain, afflicting youthful targets in schoolyard haunts where the infection spreads from dirty little hand to once-clean little eye with the tenacity and enthusiasm of wildfire. Though wholly reliant on direct inoculation to the eyeball, it is easily transmitted, whether by the sticky digits of children unfamiliar with good hygiene or via errant eye gunk inadvertently smeared on a communal surface.
They are considered the most noble creature to grace Earth. They have massive brains, complex forms of communication, the ingenuity for tool use, and the capacity to express emotions, including grief and empathy. Yet, as impressive as they are in size and majesty, elephants can still be felled by the most human of ailments: tuberculosis.
The early twentieth century was a period of frenetic drug development, a seemingly endless series of pharmaceutical and medical discoveries: antibiotics to treat bacterial infections, chemotherapeutics to battle cancers, and barbiturates to tranquilize anxieties, among many others. A huge number of these revolutionary medical treatments were discovered in the first half of the 1950s, an unprecedented era of advances in chemistry yielding a pharmacopoeia that would transform disease and the practice of medicine.