Many pitfalls await the undergraduate in the laboratory. Bunsen burners! Liquid nitrogen! The slack work ethic of one’s peers! The dreaded group projects! But the most common risk budding researchers face are the rubber glove-donners themselves, perpetrator and victim rolled into one lab coat-wearing pipetter, armed and often dangerous with great knowledge but little know-how.
Medicine is an imperfect science, its history shot through with barbaric and dubious practices from grave robbing to bloodletting. Since even before the time of that father of modern medicine, it can seem that physicians have more often violated Hippocrates’ decree “above all, do no harm” than abided by it.
“Water-borne pathogen.” Three gut-twisting words with enough power to make any epidemiologist, public health official, or globetrotting tourist double over. One of the most common forms of disease transmission is the microbial hijacking of our most precious fluid. This mechanism of infection is employed by a motley crew of microscopic organisms that have adapted to prey upon our unquenchable thirst, from pervasive bacteria like cholera and typhoid to often less famous but no less formidable parasites such as giardia and dracunculiasis.
Ask any political scientist: regime change has unforeseen consequences. The vacuum left in the wake of a collapsing leadership and the disorganization that follows, whether greeted with joy in the case of liberation or fear in the case of tyranny, brings unexpected change. For the central Asian states of the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s, among these aftereffects was the appearance of a curious and frightful little worm that saw, in the collapse of the monolithic political powerhouse, a bright opportunity for itself.
Salmonella may well be one of the most disreputable microbes in Western society. It’s infamous for its food-poisoning capabilities and has a well known history of wrecking the bonhomous vibe following a good summer barbecue, not to mention its singular ability to cast a sickly shadow over the breathtaking bounty of an all-you-can-eat buffet.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.