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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Plague It Again, Sam: Plague in the Twenty-First Century

By Rebecca Kreston | October 29, 2013 8:30 am

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.”

An image of a brown female Xenopsylla cheopis flea, responsible for transmission of Yersinia pestis, otherwise known as plague

A female Xenopsylla cheopis flea, known as the “oriental rat flea,” one of the major vectors for transmission of the bacterium Yersinia pestis, the causative agent of plague. Image: CDC/ World Health Organization.

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The Endless Public Health Challenges of the Hajj

By Rebecca Kreston | October 9, 2013 5:45 pm

Next week, the hot and happening place to be is in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as millions of Muslims gather to complete their pilgrimage to the sacred city of Mecca, a journey known as the Hajj. For public health practitioners within Saudi Arabia and beyond its borders, the Hajj poses serious challenges in the prevention and control of infectious diseases among the millions of faithful worshipers who seek to complete one of the five pillars of Islam.

Robed Muslim pilgrims circumambulate around the Kaaba, a sacred Islamic building in Mecca during the Hajj.

Pilgrims circumambulate around the Kaaba, a sacred Islamic building in Mecca during the Hajj. Image: Zurijeta.

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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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