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,
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.
Today in The New York Times coverage of a report published yesterday on a Saudi hospital-borne outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome released by The New England Journal of Medicine, a potential epidemiological phenomenon was briefly addressed: men have made up the majority of infected cases and the low rates of infection among women may be due to an emphasis on the wearing of the face veil, known as the “niqab,” in Arab culture.
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.
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.
This week, I was honored with a Best Life-In-Science Award from ScienceSeeker for my article on the earliest known cases of HIV/AIDS, “The Sea Has Neither Sense Nor Pity: the Earliest Known Cases of AIDS in the Pre-AIDS Era.” There were some serious heavyweight contenders in this inaugural contest and I am beyond delighted that this fascinating story was recognized. It’s nice to be acknowledged (and rewarded!) for work that is largely spent in loud cafes while drinking bitter espresso long gone cold and staring helplessly at my computer keyboard. Thank you to the judges - Fraser Cain, Maggie Koerth-Baker, and Maryn McKenna and to ScienceSeeker for this distinction and award.
The year 2018 has recently been declared our new target year for eliminating polio from the world by the World Health Organization, the Gates Foundation and Rotary International. It is clear that the next five years will pose no small challenge; we have spent over 60 years vaccinating millions of children and adults since Salk and Sabin’s discovery of viable polio vaccines, and we have long struggled in particular with three countries where the virus is endemic: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.
One of the hardest questions to answer in an infectious disease outbreak investigation is “Why?”
Why then? Why there? These questions can be almost impossible to answer – not only because of their heady metaphysical nature but also because of the difficulty of assessing the minute interactions between microbe, environment and human host. Public health officials are often left shrugging their shoulders, half-heartedly admitting to an unsatisfied public that they just don’t know and indeed may never know, later drowning their sorrows in dark and smoky bars with cup after cup of the metabolic waste products of unicellular fungi.