Given the ongoing outbreak of H7N9 flu in China (and, now, also Taiwan), this is a good time to listen to a fascinating podcast discussion with David Quammen
. Quammen recently published a FANTASTIC book, Spillover
, about zoonoses — the diseases that humans contract from animals. This includes bird flus like H7N9. It also includes AIDS and a whole host of familiar viruses and bacteria. Bonus: Scary disease girl Maryn McKenna has a cameo in the podcast, discussing the way news media (in China and the US) are covering H7N9 and what you can do to better understand what's happening
. — 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
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.)
From Chapter 40 of Anne of Ingleside:
Anne sneezed. She began to be afraid she was taking a cold in the head. How ghastly it would be to sniffle all through dinner under the eyes of Mrs. Andrew Dawson, nee Christine Stuart! A spot on her lip stung . . . probably a horrible cold-sore was coming on it. Did Juliet ever sneeze? Fancy Portia with chilblains! Or Argive Helen hiccoughing! Or Cleopatra with corns!
Yes, Anne of Green Gables, by the time she reached middle-age, had apparently joined the majority of adults who test positive for the virus herpes simplex type 1 — the cause of the painful, little mouth blisters known colloquially as "cold sores". Estimates vary when it comes to how many of us are HSV-1 carriers. A 2006 study found evidence of HSV-1 infection in 57.7 percent of American adults, ages 14 to 49.* Bryan Cullen, a virologist at Duke University, told me he's seen studies showing that closer to 70 percent of adults are infected — although only something like 1/3rd of those will ever get cold sores.
Don't judge Anne of Green Gables. Chances are good that you're in the same boat.
But why is this virus so common?
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Technology Review's list of 35 Innovators Under 35 includes Timothy Lu
, an MIT researcher who is engineering viruses designed to seek out and destroy biofilms — bacterial colonies that stick together on a surface, like bits of pear suspended in the world's most disgusting jell-o salad. Biofilms have been implicated in human disease
, especially chronic infections like those that can happen in the urinary tract and inner ear. But the first place Lu's biofilm-eating viruses will likely be put to work is cleaning out ducts in industrial HVAC systems. (Via Carl Zimmer) — Maggie
Short answer: We don't know
. Despite its ubiquity, there's a lot scientists don't know about the influenza virus. Helen Branswell is a great medical reporter. In this piece for the Winnipeg Free Press she explains why the flu virus makes seemingly simple questions frustratingly difficult to answer. — Maggie