Medicine is an imperfect science, its history shot through with barbaric and dubious practices from grave robbing to bloodletting. Since even before the time of that father of modern medicine, it can seem that physicians have more often violated Hippocrates’ decree “above all, do no harm” than abided by it.
“Water-borne pathogen.” Three gut-twisting words with enough power to make any epidemiologist, public health official, or globetrotting tourist double over. One of the most common forms of disease transmission is the microbial hijacking of our most precious fluid. This mechanism of infection is employed by a motley crew of microscopic organisms that have adapted to prey upon our unquenchable thirst, from pervasive bacteria like cholera and typhoid to often less famous but no less formidable parasites such as giardia and dracunculiasis.
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.
Microbial Misadventures is a recurring series on Body Horrors looking at instances and incidents where human meets microbe in novel and unusual circumstances that challenge our assumptions about how infections are spread.
Shout “fire” in a crowded room and watch the occupants fly for the exits. Speak the word “malaria” and watch as all within earshot reach for the nearest can of DEET. The incontrovertible fact of malaria’s relationship with mosquitos is one that has been known since Sir Ronald Ross discovered the parasite nesting within the belly of a mosquito in 1897. Such is the natural order, an incontestable necessity of the protozoan parasite’s life cycle. Humans, however, are rather adept at bucking that system – see cronuts, labradoodles, and the college bowl ranking system for examples. Also due to the interference of mankind, as a 1995 Taiwanese medical mystery proved, malaria can indeed be spread without the assistance of their obnoxious arthropod cronies.
Salmonella may well be one of the most disreputable microbes in Western society. It’s infamous for its food-poisoning capabilities and has a well known history of wrecking the bonhomous vibe following a good summer barbecue, not to mention its singular ability to cast a sickly shadow over the breathtaking bounty of an all-you-can-eat buffet.
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?
Hanuman is a pivotal and memorable character in the Hindu epic poem, the Ramayana. Known for his faithful devotion to Rama, the monkey-king is famous for rescuing Lord Rama’s bride Sita after she is kidnapped by the demon king Ravana, all the while defeating his demon army as commander of his monkey army. Hanuman is revered throughout south and southeast Asia not only for his devotion to Rama, but also for his steadfast spirit, his indefatigable strength, and his noble humility. He is also something of a rogue – the Coyote, the Loki, the trickster of Hindu mythology, the mischievous troublemaking deity with a heart of gold and a glint in his eye. Read More
Well, it’s here. The mosquito-borne chikungunya virus finally trekked its way into the Western Hemisphere, arrived in the Americas, and has begun infecting Caribbean mosquitoes, confirming one of the worst fears of public health officials on this side of the prime meridian. This pathogen, notorious for its explosive outbreaks and debilitating joint pains, arrived on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin and has caused over 200 infections since December 5 of 2013. The outbreak marks the first time that chikungunya has been locally transmitted by native mosquitoes in the Americas.
Our demons have their origins in our dread of death and the unknown. Today is Halloween, a time for costuming ourselves and confronting those fears (and, most importantly, for outsized consumption of sweets). For those of us celebrating Halloween disguised as vampires, werewolves and zombies, we owe a great debt to one of the world’s deadliest and most feared zoonotic viruses, rabies. This past summer I wrote about the fascinating microbial origins of some of our most enduring humanoid monsters in “The Bestial Virus: The Infectious Origins of Werewolves, Zombies & Vampires.”
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.”