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.
A few months back, Carl Zimmer published a short article on the startling widespread prevalence of neurocysticercosis; the larval infective form of the pig tapeworm Taenia solium that just so happens to infect the human brain. Check it out, but beware!, you will be learning about a parasite that gives unwelcome deep tissue massages in your gray matter and you will see photographic evidence of it.
Amongst its many epicurean, architectural and otherwise louche charms, New Orleans has another infamous, uncelebrated one: a problematically vibrant cockroach population. Every summer (oh, let’s be honest here: they’re here spring, summer and fall), the German brown cockroach can be seen snatching its way around your house, flitting on sidewalks at dusk, and intimidating the locals.
A timely letter was published in the Emerging Infectious Diseases journal shortly after my article on Baylisascaris procyonis was posted two weeks ago. It describes a quite unusual case of the infection in a recently deceased elderly woman that had lived in British Columbia, Canada. I wanted to write a quick note about this because it changes the dimensions of our understanding of this parasitic infection, challenging the notion of this disease as typically only afflicting infants and toddlers. Additionally, this letter nicely demonstrates how essential autopsies are to the ongoing pursuit of medical knowledge.
This article was published as a guest post on the blog of the Parents of Kids with Infectious Diseases (PKIDs) nonprofit on April 2, 2012. It can be visited here in an edited, shorter form. You can find out more about this great organization and their public health mission here.
The re-wilding or “greening” of urban and suburban spaces has been an indefatigable, faddy trend in urban planning for the past two decades. Urbanites like accessible parks and community gardens and food forests and stately trees and along with our car-filled cities. Hell, we name our streets after trees – spruce, elm, oak, pine and so on. These are the things we do to justify our shoddy recycling habits and not giving due care to our carbon footprint. Sustainability is the new mantra, screen-printed on our reusable grocery totes. So it can be troubling when we see the repercussions when we bring nature into the neighborhood and blur the line between urban comforts and rural charms. One of those manifestations can be rodents, coyotes, foxes, opossums, and raccoons joining the ‘hood.
Dogs are dirty, dirty animals. I know because I’ve had several, which currently includes a mud-loving, cockroach-catching, drooly mess of a boxer who enjoys nothing more than sleeping her way over every soft surface in my house. The fact that dogs also transmit diseases, and an incredible variety of them at that, does not help matters! Parasites, viruses, bacterial and fungal infections! To their owners! To me, maybe you, maybe your friends! Your relationship with your pet is, in short, a lot richer than you could ever imagine. In light of this, I have a real doozy of a story about the relationship between pet dogs and a miserable little parasite set in the barren desert of northwest Kenya.