It was the work of the lunar god, a “disease of the moon,” thought the Mesopotamians. The Romans attributed it to demonic possession. Priests and peasants in the Middle Ages considered the “falling sickness” a contagious evil.
Today our understanding of seizures and epilepsy rests not with lunar cycles or the supernatural, but with scientific insights into the developing brain and the pathologies of various diseases. We now know that there are over forty different disease processes that can cause the syndrome known as epilepsy, ranging from metabolic disorders to tumors, from trauma to congenital diseases.
The cells of our immune system are the guardians of the human body, forever contending with various unwelcome intruders from viruses to drugs to lowly yet painful splinters. They are as industrious as they are indispensable.
Tensions can run high when living with roommates. Quibbles over dishes, the rent and utilities, and even questionable hygiene practices can inflame tempers and sabotage relationships, leaving passive-aggressive notes and broken homes in their wake. There are many ways of managing a good home life within a shared household of semi-strangers, but we’ll save that for another time in another column. This is about a roommate dispute gone totally to the worms.
Mining is low on the list of enviable occupations. The hazards one faces when plying one of humanity’s most ancient professions, burrowing deep into the earth to harvest its hidden treasures in the form of precious stones and metals, range from grungy to downright gruesome. The occupation is widely considered to be one of the world’s most dangerous, and it was only in the 1950s that the mining industry in the United States finally saw fatalities due to accidents dip under a thousand a year (1).
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.
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.
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 Democratic Republic of Congo is home to one of the largest and most biologically diverse rain forests in the world, featuring an incredible variety of animals including bonobos, forest elephants, and mountain gorillas. The country is also the stomping ground of a staggering array of microbial organisms and the region is well known as a wellspring of novel human pathogens, some with big household names and others little known. Some of these diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, have emerged as recognizably major pandemics; others, such as Ebola virus, have been limited to small, localized outbreaks; others still, such as the mosquito-borne Chikungunya virus, pose the risk of becoming new threats to global health.
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.
A recently published paper in Scientific Reports has found that climate variability in the form of the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) has had a significant impact on the occurrence of disease outbreaks in Europe over the past fifty years. Researchers in France and the United Kingdom studied 2,058 outbreaks occurring in 36 countries from 114 infectious diseases from 1950 to 2009 and found that climatic variations and seasonal changes in air pressure across the continent attributed to the NAO influenced the outbreak occurrences of eleven diseases. Every conceivable route of transmission – by air, food, water and vector – was influenced by NAO conditions.