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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. Maggie 8

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. Maggie 30

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. Maggie 3

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. Maggie 4

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. Maggie 11

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. Maggie 2

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. Maggie

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. Maggie

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. Maggie

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. Maggie

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. Maggie

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. Maggie

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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