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.
Much of the United States is mesmerized by the belligerent squawks from North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and the volatile tension straddling the Korean peninsula, but I’m more concerned about what is happening in China right now and the troubling trickle of news on a new bird flu strain H7N9.
That insistent buzzing drone you hear? It’s the sound of our burgeoning mosquito problem and the nasty diseases that they carry wreaking havoc throughout the world. 2012 was a prodigious year for mosquito-borne arboviral diseases, with West Nile virus, Japanese encephalitis, malaria, dengue and yellow fever outbreaks and epidemics raging in the United States, the Sudan, Puerto Rico, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Peru, Brazil and many other nations besides.
Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo have been bedeviled by viral hemorrhagic fever outbreaks this year. Since the summer, Ebola and Marburg have appeared throughout the two verdant countries killing dozens of people.
Storms a’comin’! For those readers who don’t know, the headquarters of this blog is located in New Orleans, Louisiana, the current target for Hurricane Isaac. It is lumbering towards us at a “take your time” speed of 7 to 10 miles per hour and in a few short hours will inundate us with a good amount of rain and ~100 mph winds. I’m hunkering down in my house with gallons of water, snacks of dubious nutritional value (cheese-in-a-can? brown sugar baked beans? eight-dollar warm white wine? really?) and with a pile of board games ready to sit out the next 40 hours with family, friends and my boxer.
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.
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.
The bodies of dead crows were found littered through back yards, overgrown meadows, and public parks. We like to attach meanings to events, to craft symbols out of the mysterious and unknown. Birds, in particular, are favorite auguries of ours. These mass crow die-offs were an ugly, sinister sign – what could this mean, mass deaths of creatures customarily seen as living omens of death and the plague?
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.