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.
Parasites and viruses once thought to make their homes exclusively in exotic locales beyond America’s borders are now gaining a foothold in the country and they are exacting significant economic tolls and placing heavy burdens on health care systems. Neglected tropical diseases such as cysticercosis, echinococcus, toxocariasis, dengue, West Nile virus and Chagas have found their way into the country due to a synergistic combination of factors, including globalization, migration, trade and climate change.
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.
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.