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
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
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
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
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
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. The End.
But that simplified version only makes sense if you overlook some important facts about how the plague (which still exists) operates today. “The Black Death killed between 30 and 50 percent of the affected population,” says Sharon DeWitte, assistant professor of anthropology and biology at The University of South Carolina. “Modern plague, at most, kills between 2 and 3 percent, and that’s even in areas without access to modern medicine.”
What’s more, DeWitte says, recorded symptoms from the Black Death don’t entirely match up with those of modern plague. And the Black Death seems to have spread through populations faster and killed much faster than its modern cousin. The differences are striking enough that some scientists, including DeWitte at one point, have suspected that the Black Death might not have been caused by plague at all. But genomic reconstructions of ancient DNA suggest the two are one. So what changed? Ultimately, that’s the question that makes last month’s discovery of a new Black Death cemetery in London so important.
Read the rest
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.)
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.
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. — Maggie
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
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. — Maggie
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) — Maggie
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
"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
? — Xeni
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.
Read the rest