Microbial Misadventures: Playing With Fire

By Rebecca Kreston | May 26, 2014 11:00 am

“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.

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One Parasite’s Rise Amidst the Soviet Union’s Decline

By Rebecca Kreston | April 29, 2014 9:15 am

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.

An illustrated map of the republics of the former Soviet Union in the year 1989.

The administrative republics of the former Soviet Union in the year 1989, prior to the independence of Soviet republics following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Image: Perry-Castañeda Library (PCL) of the University of Texas at Austin. Click for source.

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Microbial Misadventures: A Malaria Outbreak Without Mosquitoes

By Rebecca Kreston | April 14, 2014 9:07 am

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.

A photomicrograph of Plasmodium malariae showing the merozoite stage of the parasite’s life cycle. These red blood cells will release merozoite that will eventually develop into male and female gametocytes. Image: CDC.

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A Reptile Dysfunction: Unlikely Sources of Salmonella

By Rebecca Kreston | March 24, 2014 9:35 am

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.

An illustration of a petri dish with red Salmonella bacteria rods.

A gram stain of a species of Salmonella. Image: CDC.

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Paved With Good Intentions: Mao Tse-Tung’s “Four Pests” Disaster

By Rebecca Kreston | February 26, 2014 9:33 am

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?

Four Pests campaign poster from 1960

“Eradicate pests and diseases and build happiness for ten thousand generations.” A poster from September 1960 by the Red Cross and the Health Propaganda Office of the Health Department of Fujian Province. Note the industrial skyline, the healthy crop of vegetables in the center of the poster and the four pests at the bottom. Source: US National LIbrary of Medicine. Click for source.

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Hanuman’s Bite: Temple Monkeys & Pathogen Swapping

By Rebecca Kreston | February 17, 2014 12:00 pm

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

Chikungunya Virus Makes Inroads into the Americas

By Rebecca Kreston | January 15, 2014 9:20 am

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.

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Imported Goods: Dengue’s Return to the United States

By Rebecca Kreston | November 26, 2013 4:20 pm

Successful World War II-era campaigns to eradicate dengue has kept the United States free from the mosquito-borne virus for almost forty years but the virus is making a comeback and we have globalization to thank: an increased flow in international travel to and from tropical destinations are causing isolated outbreaks in Hawaii, Texas, and Florida. Just last week, Texan public health officials confirmed 18 cases of dengue in the southernmost tip of Texas and a recently discovered case in Long Island, NY suggesting that the virus, dubbed “breakbone fever” for its excruciating aches and pains, is gaining an unwelcome foothold in the States.

Over 380 cases of imported dengue virus were recorded for the year 2013 as of November 19th. Pink counties indicate positive test findings, whereas yellow counties are indicative of negative test findings. Image: US Geological Survey/Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

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Caution to the Wind: Dirty Horns are the Clarion Call for Microbes

By Rebecca Kreston | November 14, 2013 6:20 pm

The professional musician who follows her dream of performing on the stage is greeted by an array of unusual occupational hazards. These are not limited to those late night hours spent in bars exposed to cigarette smoke and aggressive groupies but the risks of carpal tunnel, hoarseness, hearing loss, and the longterm effects of strange sleeping schedules as well. For those that provide their marching bands, funk joints, and jazz ensembles with that crucial brass sound, however, they may be at additional risk from a tiny threat hiding within their very own instrument.

What could be hiding in this tenor saxophone? Image: Holbox.

What could be hiding in this tenor saxophone? Image: Holbox.

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Halloween’s Debt to a Demonic Virus

By Rebecca Kreston | October 31, 2013 2:50 pm

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.

A woodcut from 1512 of an attacking werewolf by the German painter and printmaker Lucas Cranach the Elder. Image: Gotha, Herzogliches Museum (Landesmuseum).

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