Boing Boing 

Infectious disease squeeze-balls, full of buboes

The coolest gross-out toy under our tree this year is the $5 infectious disease ball, a squeeze-ball wrapped in mesh that erupts into disquieting, vividly colored buboes when you squeeze it.

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Deforestation leads to Ebola

Over the past few months, West Africa has been experiencing the biggest and most deadly Ebola outbreak on record and deforestation is a key part of why.

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As many as 75 federal scientists may have been exposed to anthrax

Anthrax bacteria. (Photo: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)


Anthrax bacteria. (Photo: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Up to 75 scientists who work at a US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention biosecurity lab in Atlanta may have been exposed to anthrax, because researchers there did not follow procedures for inactivating the deadly and highly contagious bacteria.

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Possible food poisoning at Food Safety Summit

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More than 100 people reportedly fell ill with food poisoning while attending a high-profile Food Safety Summit in Baltimore, Maryland. The 1,300 attendees included representatives from the Food and Drug Administation, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Tyson, McDonald's, and many more agencies and food companies. (NBC News)

Now we know what causes narcolepsy

Narcolepsy is an autoimmune disease — a finding that helps explain why the 2009 swine flu (and the vaccine used to prevent it) was correlated with increased cases of narcolepsy.

Why new parents (and almost-parents) need pertussis vaccines

I'm 38 weeks pregnant now. Two weeks ago, my husband and I both got Tdap vaccines — tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis. This despite the fact that we've both gotten Tdaps relatively recently, within the last six years, thanks to a home renovation lifestyle that involves regular exposure to rusty nails.

So why re-up on the Tdap before the birth of our baby? It's all about the pertussis. Also called whooping cough, pertussis is particularly hard on infants. Pre-vaccine, it killed 4000 Americans every year, and most of them were new babies — and infections are on the rise in this country, so there's actually a reasonable risk of a newborn coming into contact with the bacteria that causes pertussis. But the larger problem is with the pertussis vaccine, itself. It doesn't have the staying power it once did. A little over 20 years ago, we switched the formulation for pertussis vaccines. There were good reasons for doing that — the "new" formula has fewer side effects. But it also doesn't seem to protect people as well for as long. In fact, the protection starts to wear off within a year of vaccination.

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Why it's risky to be a bad-ass

At Matter, physical therapy professor Eric Robertson writes about a very rare condition called rhabdomyolysis — it's what happens when chronically overworked muscle cells rupture and overload your kidneys with massive amounts of protein. The results are painful, reasonably disgusting, and potentially deadly. Rhabdomyolysis used to be something you only had to worry about if you were, say, part of an elite military squad or a professional athlete. But as more average folks have gotten into elite physical training regimens through programs like CrossFit, the profile of people damaged by rhabdomyolysis is changing. Training like a bad-ass can bring along some of the physical risks of being a bad-ass.

A real graveyard curse: Archaeologists susceptible to fungal disease

Valley fever is a respiratory disease that can cause flu-like symptoms, rashes, and (sometimes) chronic lung problems. It's caused by a fungus that lives in dry soil, essentially hibernating for years until it's reinvigorated by moisture. Valley fever is best known for infecting prisoners in the American southwest, but it's also an occupational hazard of archaeologists ... who spend most of their lives sifting through the soils where the fungus lives.

Good news about that horrific brain-eating amoeba

Turns out, it doesn't kill absolutely everybody it infects. A 12-year-old girl in Arkansas is recovering from her battle with the killer single-celled organism. She's the third known person to survive. Nobody knows yet how she, or the other survivors, made it through. Why? Well, that's more (sort of) good news. There've only been 130 recorded cases of brain-eating amoeba infection since 1962. It's so rare, that it's difficult for doctors to study.

The plant disease that's threatening your chocolate stash

Chocolate frosty pod rot is not a poorly conceived cereal brand. Instead, it's a fungus that devours cocoa pods — turning them to nasty mush while still on the branch. Quietly spreading through Central America, chocolate frosty pod rot can devastate cocoa crops, wiping out entire plantations.

Does MERS come from bats? Or possibly, camels?

MERS — the deadly coronavirus related to SARS — has infected 77 people in the Middle East (that we're aware of) and killed half of them (as far as we know). Now, scientists are starting to look for its source and they're focusing in on two animals that have lots of opportunity to interact with local populations in Saudi Arabia, and other countries.

More on MERS

MERS is the SARS-related virus that's killing people in the Middle East — and the government of Saudi Arabia, where most of the outbreak is happening, has been reticent about releasing information on infections and deaths. Now, the government of Jordan has admitted that the earliest recorded outbreak, which happened back in April of 2012, actually infected at least 10 people, rather than the previously reported two. It sounds like this revelation was the result of an internal re-evaluation of previous records, rather than the suppression of something the government had long known. But it gives you a good idea of how bad the epidemiological information on MERS is right now, and how little we know about it.

Saudi Arabia still tight-lipped on SARS-related virus with pandemic potential

In July, millions of people will travel to Saudi Arabia to celebrate the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. When they do that, they might be at risk of contracting MERS — Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome — a coronavirus, similar to SARS. They could also be at risk of carrying MERS back to their home countries. Unfortunately, Saudi Arabian authorities have released so little information about MERS that global public health experts don't know how to advise these pilgrims as they prepare for travel. We don't know where MERS came from, we don't know what its infection patterns are or how the disease has changed since it was first identified. It's not even certain that we know the true extent of infections and deaths, given that the Saudi Arabian government has been releasing that information in batches, sometimes months after those infections and deaths actually happened.

Helen Branswell is one of my favorite sources on global public health and pandemic disease. She's got a guest post at Scientific American blogs that explains what we do know about MERS, and why the lack of information is such a big problem.

The new virus was first isolated in June 2012. But its existence came to the world’s attention only weeks before last October’s hajj, when an Egyptian infectious diseases specialist who had been working in Saudi Arabia’s second largest city, Jeddah, reported that he had treated a man who died from an infection caused by a new coronavirus. Whether MERS has or can gain the capacity for sustained person-to-person spread is unknown.

... Infectious disease experts are aghast that this late into MERS’s spread the world still has no idea what puts people at risk of infection, how long the incubation period is, when people are contagious or whether there are mild cases that are being missed because surveillance is focused on finding sick people in hospitals. They put the problem squarely at the feet of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), which accounts for 41 of the 55 infections to date.

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Strange ways to contract rare diseases

The Body Horrors blog has a new recurring series called Microbial Misadventures — all about times when people met disease-causing microbes under less-than-normal circumstances. It starts with an interesting question: Given the fact that most anthrax infections come from eating tainted meat, how did a vegetarian end up with the disease in 2009? Two-word hint: Drum circle.

What happens when you mix global disease and authoritarian governments

When SARS emerged in China in 2002, the Chinese government tried to cover it up, waiting months to inform the World Health Organization. In fact, the WHO first heard about SARS from a Canadian monitoring service that picked up and translated Chinese reports of a "flu outbreak". Something similar happened this week. Only this time, the disease was a different coronavirus related to SARS and the transparency-deprived government was that of Saudi Arabia. Maryn McKenna writes about how the WHO (and everyone else) recently learned of seven new cases, and five deaths, via an Arabic language press release published at 10:30 at night ... likely weeks or even months after the deaths happened.

Brace yourselves, tick season is coming

At Outside magazine, Carl Zimmer has a great long read on why the tick population in the United States is increasing — and why scientists are having so much trouble controlling both ticks, and the diseases they spread.

More evidence that Haiti's cholera epidemic started with UN Peacekeepers

Haiti has been battling a massive cholera outbreak since, roughly, around the time international aid groups arrived in the country following the 2010 earthquake. Now, genetic evidence links the strain of cholera in Haiti to a rare strain native to Nepal — further proof that it was Nepalese UN Peacekeepers who brought cholera to Haiti. This news comes two months after the UN claimed immunity from any financial liability relating to the outbreak, writes Stacey Singer at the Palm Beach Post.

What you need to know now about H7N9 bird flu

Looking for a quick rundown of basic information about the new strain of bird flu that's infecting people in China? The Toronto Star's Jennifer Yang has a great, one-page breakdown that will get you caught up on just about everything you need to know — including how scared you should be. For the record, the answer to that is complicated. We aren't near a pandemic yet. But we do need to get a better handle on understanding how this virus works so we can stop it from spreading. It's a serious situation and the news is not all good news. But we don't seem to be at a point where anybody outside of China and the international public health community should be in an urgent crisis mode.

Shedding light on the Black Death

Seven hundred years ago, millions of Europeans were wiped out by a disease we still don’t entirely understand. The Black Death might seem like a pretty open-and-shut case at this point: It was caused by plague-bearing fleas that hitched rides on the rats that infested a grim and grimy medieval world.

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Disease superspreaders and the new coronavirus

Coronavirus — characterized by the halo of protein spikes that surround each individual virus particle — is the family that gave birth to SARS. Today, there's a new coronavirus stalking humans, especially in the Middle East. Scientists have documented 16 infections, and 10 fatalities. The good news is that there are probably lots of non-serious infections that aren't being reported, meaning the fatality rate probably isn't as high as it looks. Also, this coronavirus seems to have trouble spreading from person to person. But, in regards to that last factor, it's important to pay attention to a detail from the SARS outbreak that we still don't totally understand. Turns out, a handful of people were responsible for most of those infections. The Canadian Press' Helen Branswell writes about superspreaders and the scientists trying to understand how individuals can alter the course of an outbreak. (BTW: If you don't follow Helen Branswell on Twitter, you're missing some of the best infectious disease reporting out there.)

Cancer as a contagious disease

In 2011, Hugo Chavez alleged that he was the victim of an assassination plot ... that unnamed US agents had infected him with a transmissible cancer. Scientifically speaking, that's highly unlikely. But what's interesting is that the idea of contagious cancer isn't totally outside the realm of reality. Transmissible cancers do exist, just not in any primate species. At Scientific American, Marissa Fessenden interviews a geneticist about the contagious cancers that affect dogs and Tasmanian devils.

Mummies had a form of chronic cardiovascular disease

Atherosclerosis is what happens when your arteries fill up with layers of fat and white blood cells. It's a disease of chronic inflammation that increases your risk of stroke and heart attack. It's also a disease we tend to associate with the modern era — commonly cited risk factors include cigarette smoking, obesity, and stress. But there are some signs that we may not have a great handle on what actually causes atherosclerosis. That's because ancient mummies, from all over the world, have shown signs of the disease. It's unclear what this means at this point — for instance, just because ancient people didn't light up a Marlboro from time to time doesn't mean they weren't exposed to smoke and particulate matter from indoor cooking fires. But it's fascinating to see a disease of modernity affecting the past.

You're not a doctor, but you can play one on the iPad

The Epidemic Intelligence Service is the crack CDC team that investigates new diseases. (If you want to read more about them, I'd recommend checking out Maryn McKenna's Beating Back the Devil.) Now, you can play Epidemic Intelligence operative at home, with the CDC's new iPad app game, Solve the Outbreak. Fulfill all your childhood, Hot Zone-induced fantasies!

One man's kindly benefactor is another man's fetishist

Consider the following corollary to Rule 34 — No matter how unattractive you think a certain feature (or lack thereof) might be, there will always be somebody who is totally into it. Case it point: Nose-less syphilitics in 19th-century London. You might suspect that would doom one to a life of loneliness. But no. At the Chirurgeons Apprentice you can read about the older "eccentric" gentlemen who liked to throw underground parties for his many nose-less friends.

Meet Vomiting Larry

Vomiting Larry is a humanoid robot designed to projectile vomit all over a lab at the Health and Safety Laboratory in Derbyshire, England. He's helping scientists learn about how diseases spread. Warning: If you read this Reuters story by Kate Kelland you will be forced to acknowledge the existence of "aerosolized vomit". (Via Microbe World)

Cat toys shaped like microbes

Behold, a truly fantastic gift for the cat in your life — catnip-filled soft toys shaped like amoebas, cyanobacteria, and (pictured above) giardia.

Giardia are microscopic parasites that can invade the guts of vertebrate animals, including cats and humans. Generally, you get it by ingesting giardia-infested feces. For humans, this mostly means contaminated drinking water, because giardia are harder to kill than you might think. They can survive quite happily outside of a host and are resistant to chlorine.

Blue giardia cat toy

Read more on giardia (and see pictures) at the CDC website

Why is a mysterious kidney disease killing sugar-cane workers in Central America?

"It goes by many names, but around here they call it 'the malady of the sugar cane," writes Will Storr in the Guardian. A quiet epidemic has been preying on Central American sugar field laborers for decades, and it is killing more and more each year. "Between 2005 and 2009, incidents in El Salvador rose by 26%. By 2011 the chronic kidney disease (CKD) had become the country's second-biggest killer of men." But what exactly is it?

New respiratory virus identified in the Middle East: What you need to know

Coronaviruses are a family of relatively large viruses. The name comes from the fact that, under a microscope, coronaviruses all look like they are surrounded by little halos. Those "coronas" are actually little proteins that cover the surface of the viruses and help them gain access to the cells they invade.

Although scientists think that coronaviruses are actually responsible for a significant percentage of the illnesses that we call the "common cold", the most famous coronavirus is SARS, which killed almost 1000 people in 2003. That doesn't sound like many, but comparing deaths to diagnosed cases reveals a fatality rate of 10%. (There's a good chance this number doesn't give you the full picture. It's likely more people contracted SARS than ended up diagnosed with it, simply because, if your illness isn't severe, you don't usually bother to get diagnosed. To provide some context, the 1918 flu pandemic had an estimated fatality rate of 2.5%.)

All of this explains why a newly identified coronavirus — which may be the cause of two deaths and a couple of outbreaks of respiratory illness in the Middle East — is getting so much attention and causing people to freak out a little. The virus (which doesn't actually have a name yet) is part of the same family as SARS. SARS was a scary virus. So this new virus has everyone a little on edge, too.

The key thing to remember, though, is that this new virus is not SARS. And there's a lot we don't yet know about it.

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MIT models which airports are most likely to spread disease

Researchers at MIT used network theory to put together a model of how an infectious disease might spread around the world with the help of American airports. The model shows which features—geography, connectivity, levels of use—most impact the spread of disease and use that to predict which airports would be at the heart of an outbreak.

Some are not a shock. ("Oh, you say JFK and LAX could serve as worldwide hubs for disease?") But the model also reveals some surprising spark points. Like, say, Anchorage. It's also interesting to see the order that the model ranks airports in. Would you believe that Honolulu has more disease-spreading power than Atlanta?

Read the full journal article at PLOS One, an open-access scientific journal.

Read a short summary at the Nature Medicine blog

The benefits of xenophobia

Xenophobia is neither the fear of Xeni, nor of Xena. Rather, it's more about knee-jerk mistrust, dislike, and hatred for people who aren't part of your group. We've come to associate it with not liking people from other countries, but it applies to smaller-scale, less formal tribalism, as well.

Over at the Scientific American blogs, science writer and biologist Rob Dunn talks about some of the theories for why something as seemingly antisocial as xenophobia could have been beneficial to our ancestors—at least under certain circumstances. The key, he says, might be disease. Not cooperating between groups, refusing to share resources, and generally going out of your way to avoid strangers makes sense if those strangers are infected with something that could kill you.

If I'm understanding Dunn correctly, the research and theorizing on this topic isn't saying xenophobia is good. Nor is it saying that all xenophobia grows out of a conscious, reasonable fear of disease. It's more like, the times when xenophobia did turn out to be coincidentally beneficial happened to reward people who were more likely to pass on xenophobic tendencies to their offspring (whether those tendencies were genetic or cultural is hard to say). Thus, the tendency continues, even in situations where it's actively detrimental. And Dunn points to an interesting recent study that showed deadly white-nose syndrome is causing xenophobic-esque changes in the behavior of bat populations.

Although it looked as though the little brown bats and several other species might soon face extinction, at least in some regions and perhaps even in North America, the little brown bats have begun to rebound in some places, albeit modestly. A new paper out this week takes notice of one of the reasons they appear to be rebounding, the bats are avoiding each other. Little brown bats (at least historically) tend to roost in large, groups, one next to the other, bumping fuzzies as it were. But not anymore. More and more, this new study, led by Kate Langwig, a graduate student at Boston University, suggests, the bats are spreading themselves out in their roosting caves, their hibernacula. Once, they clumped, warming themselves around the tiny fires of their bodies. Now, they go it alone.

Langwig’s results are preliminary, as she and her colleagues are the first to admit. She has measured the change in the bat roosting (and abundance) before and after the arrival of the disease, but she has not really studied the behavior of the bats and how it is they come to be spaced apart. Yet, the bats the are important from the perspective of the basic biology and conservation of the bats and so there remains much to do and much that can be done. For example, it would be good to know if the probability of transmission of the disease really goes down when the bats are further apart. It would also be interesting to figure out if the same individuals that were once nuzzling up next to each other, are now hanging out on their own.

Read the rest of Rob Dunn's post on xenophobia and disease

Via Discover's 80 Beats blog