The Public Health Legacy of the 1976 Swine Flu Outbreak

By Rebecca Kreston | September 30, 2013 8:30 am

Vaccines were once thought of as an axiomatic good, a longed-for salvation in the form of a syringe, banishing crippling and deadly infections like polio, smallpox and tetanus. But within the past few decades we have seen the emergence of anti-vaccination movements and a rise in cases of childhood diseases that are entirely preventable with a quick jab to the arm.

President Gerald Ford receiving the swine flu vaccine from his White House physician, Dr. William Lukash on October 14, 1976. Image: David Hume Kennerly. Source: Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum.

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Valley Fever, The Archaeologist’s Scourge

By Rebecca Kreston | September 9, 2013 8:00 am

This past June a federal judge ordered the relocation of thousands of prisoners from two prisons in the San Joaquin Valley in California to protect imprisoned men against a small fungus, Coccidioides immitis, that could infiltrate the gated and locked Pleasant Valley and Avenal state prisons and continue to cause isolated cases of a debilitating illness, valley fever. 

A photomicrograph showing scattered strains of arthroconidia of the fungus Coccidioides immitis.

A photomicrograph of the arthroconidia of Coccidioides immitis showing their characteristic barrel shape. Image: CDC/Dr. Lucille K. Georg.

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Congo’s Uncharted Territory

By Rebecca Kreston | August 19, 2013 7:51 pm

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.

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The End of Antibiotics?

By Rebecca Kreston | August 1, 2013 7:00 pm

Maryn McKenna has an unsettling and sobering article at Nature examining the the emergence of carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae. Since 2002, this large family of  bacteria, gram-negative organisms that include many symbionts as well as the gut-dwelling Escherica coli and Klebsiella species that cause hospital infections, are increasingly in possession of a carbapenem-resistance gene rending our best antibiotics useless.

A blue and white map of the United States showing states with carbapenemase-producing CRE confirmed by CDC.

A map of the United States showing states with carbapenemase-producing CRE that promote resistance to carbapenem antibiotics as confirmed by CDC as of September 2012.

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Microbial Misadventures: Fingers, Flies, & That Old Pinkeye

By Rebecca Kreston | July 27, 2013 6:50 pm

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. 

Conjunctivitis is spread through particularly artful and gross means – the contamination of objects with eye gunk, smeared inadvertently hither and thither as a person wrestles with the itchy, gritty misery that defines what is commonly known as pinkeye. Many of us know that infectious diseases inevitably come from someone, some one, but we don’t often know from whom. Conjunctivitis is easy enough for the amateur Sherlock or epidemiologist-in-training – find the disconsolate soul with red, dripping eyes and follow the (sticky) trail.

A birds-eye view of an illustration of the eye gnat Hippelates pusio

An illustration of the Hippelates pusio eye gnat. H. pusio derive nourishment from eye secretions and are most prevalent during the warm, summer months. Eye gnats are mechanical vectors in the transmission of species of Haemophilus bacterial organisms that are responsible for causing outbreaks of seasonal infective conjunctivitis. Image: CDC.

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The Special Brand of Horror that is the New World Screwworm

By Rebecca Kreston | July 22, 2013 1:20 pm

“During her hospital stay, a total of 142 larvae were manually extracted, aided by the application of raw bacon which served as an attractant and petroleum jelly occlusion.”

You might be surprised to know that finding interesting articles on infections and infestations is a thankless and occasionally banal job. It is rare, as you find yourself trawling through the dusty and dense annals of Pubmed and Jstor, that you stumble upon a really good paper, the true gold twinkling among the pyrite of multisyllabic articles on viral proteomics, immunology and dull epidemiological trends in diseases. When you discover a treasure that renders you mute, like the one I recently discovered on a screwworm infestation that was wrangled by physicians with processed pork products, it’s like chancing upon a chupacabra in your backyard. The sight is both rare and awful, but also mesmerizing to behold. Also, you need to tell everyone about the chupacabra that you found.

An illustration of the dorsal view of the New World screwworm fly, Cochliomyia hominivorax.

A dorsal view of the New World screwworm fly, Cochliomyia hominivorax, a member of the family Calliphoridae. Adult flies are the size of a housefly with a greenish-blue metallic body color and an orange face. The larvae are obligate parasites of living flesh in warm-blooded animals  including humans, and can cause a parasitic illnes known as myaisis. Image: CDC.

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Asymmetric (Gender) Warfare & Japan’s Rubella Virus Outbreak

By Rebecca Kreston | July 15, 2013 6:08 pm

Japan is in the midst of a rubella outbreak that has already infected over 5,000 people in just the first four months of this year. Since the early 2000s, the country has undergone cyclical five-year rubella epidemics, with community-wide outbreaks cresting in the spring and summer. But in the past two years the number of infections has surged dramatically from a hundred-odd cases every year into the thousands, and a weird epidemiological pattern has emerged thanks to a quirk in Japan’s vaccination policy in the 1970s: 77% of cases in the rubella outbreak have occurred in men over the age of 20 (1).

Black and white image of rubella viruses

A transmission electron micrograph (TEM) showing an assemblage of rubella virions. Image: Dr. Erskine Palmer, CDC.

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The Bestial Virus: The Infectious Origins of Werewolves, Zombies & Vampires

By Rebecca Kreston | July 11, 2013 12:45 pm

Rabies is one of mankind’s long-feared diseases. And rightfully so: for centuries, a bite from a crazed, slavering animal was almost always a guarantee of a slow warping of the mind and a pained, gruesome demise. A death sentence.

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Body Horrors Talks Disease & Society on Skeptically Speaking

By Rebecca Kreston | July 8, 2013 10:05 am

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.

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A Formula for Hate: Captain Planet & the Planeteer’s HIV Episode

By Rebecca Kreston | June 28, 2013 1:45 pm

Earth! Fire! Wind! Water! Heart! “Captain Planet and Planeteers” is a classic of 1990s television and may soon appear on the big screen as a live-action movie. The animated television series featured five earnest teenagers equipped with magical powers fighting eco-villains intent on destroying the ozone, rainforest and the wetlands and guided by the sage wisdom of Gaia, the spirit of Earth, and Captain Planet. Today, the program is recognized for its environmental “edutainment” pitch and the emerald-mulleted, square-jawed appearance of its titular superhero.

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Body Horrors looks at the history, anthropology and geography of infectious diseases and parasites.

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