Unbeknownst to many of the public, August was National Immunization Awareness Month. I know, I know: it’s been overshadowed by some very exotic and thrilling headliners this month. The Ebola epidemic blazing defiantly in West Africa. The jaw-dropping videos shown on Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week.” The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge clogging everyone’s social feeds. Vaccines are just not as sexy or as flamboyant as these issues. Truthfully, they’re a bit dull to talk about, not a topic you would tend to bring up at cocktail parties or at the water cooler. Read More
Just as we jetsetters and nomads wander the wide world’s winding roads and byways by foot, on horseback, atop a bicycle or packed into an automobile, so too do infectious diseases make use of our ever-improving networks of thoroughfares. They ride along in human bodies, their journeys fueled by our social mobility and contact, two factors unavoidably intensified anytime we embark upon a voyage. But as these pathogens travel new routes and encounter new bodies, they can change and mutate. Luckily for researchers, by examining commonly traveled routes where we once naively believed that only humans trod, the active evolution and epidemiology of a pathogen can be revealed, providing insight into the development and patterns of disease affecting mankind.
In the twentieth century, men toiling in British and American coal mines relied on a primitive alert system for imperceptible dangers: the bright canary bird. Miners toted the caged birds into the depths of the earth to serve as early warnings against poisonous and potentially fatal gas leaks. If the tiny birds suddenly slumped in their cages due to the presence of odorless and colorless carbon monoxide, miners would beat a hasty retreat to safer, cleaner air.
Many pitfalls await the undergraduate in the laboratory. Bunsen burners! Liquid nitrogen! The slack work ethic of one’s peers! The dreaded group projects! But the most common risk budding researchers face are the rubber glove-donners themselves, perpetrator and victim rolled into one lab coat-wearing pipetter, armed and often dangerous with great knowledge but little know-how.
It’s one of the easiest ways to care for your health, a ritual we participate in daily: brushing those osseous outcroppings, our teeth. For those of us who heed the pleas of our dentists, flossing is a part of our routines, too. But the state of affairs of our glistening maws – the density of plaque, the presence of gingivitis, a full set of chompers – is important beyond mere aesthetics. Good oral fitness, particularly steps taken to limit the bacterial status quo, plays an important role in the goings-on of our body as a whole; a dirty mouth – and not the kind prone to sailor-like profanity – can provide important clues as to how susceptible you are to heart attacks and strokes.
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.