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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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).
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.
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.
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.