Stories tagged infectious diseases

Jan
07
2011

Back in 1998, a British doctor named Andrew Wakefield did a study on twelve children, and wrote a paper claiming that a link existed between childhood vaccinations and autism.

Naturally, this freaked out a lot of parents, and lots of folks stopped having their kids vaccinated. Consequently, infection rates of diseases that are totally preventable with vaccines—like measles and whooping cough—went up.

Then, other scientists were unable to reproduce Wakefield's experiment, which kind of made it seem like it was wasn't accurate to begin with. Wakefield couldn't even reproduce his experiment. Nonetheless, lots of people stuck to the idea that autism is caused by vaccines, or by ingredients in vaccines. When these ingredients were removed because of the concern, people picked other ingredients to blame. Still scientists could find no link between any of the components of vaccines and autism.

Meanwhile, most of the other scientists involved with Wakefield's research removed their names from the published results. And then The Lancet, the respected medical journal that originally published Wakefield's research, actually retracted the study, because it was so inaccurate. And then Wakefield had his medical license, because his poor research was so irresponsible. Still Wakefield and his supporters insisted that the link existed, and that he was the target of a global conspiracy.

Now, there's another nail in a coffin that just won't stay shut: a journalist (who has signed a statement saying that he has no financial interest in the debate) has found that Wakefield's original research on the twelve children was fraudulent. Wakefield misrepresented the medical histories of his subjects to make it appear that they had developed autism after receiving the vaccine for mumps, measles and rubella, when, in fact, some of the subjects had shown signs of autism before receiving the vaccine, and some had not developed autism at all.

During all this, Wakefield accepted $674,000 from lawyers preparing a lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers. Eh... whoops.

The new information suggests that not only was Wakefield's research inaccurate, he deliberately falsified it.

It's an interesting story, but as Dr. Max Wiznitzer points out in the article linked to above, the medical and scientific communities already knew Wakefield was a fraud, and Wakefield's followers aren't likely to change their positions now, so it's a little bit of a moot point.

Wakefield himself says that the truth is in his book, which he wants you to buy.

Nov
10
2010

This scanning electron micrograph depicts a number of Vibrio cholerae bacteria; Magnified 22371x.: Cholera can be simply and successfully treated by immediate replacement of the fluid and salts lost through diarrhea. Severe cases also require intravenous fluid replacement.
This scanning electron micrograph depicts a number of Vibrio cholerae bacteria; Magnified 22371x.: Cholera can be simply and successfully treated by immediate replacement of the fluid and salts lost through diarrhea. Severe cases also require intravenous fluid replacement.Courtesy CDC/ Janice Haney Carr
Picture yourself lying in a bed with a hole cut out under you to collect buckets full of unstoppable diarrhea. Now imagine your child lying there. Finally, pretend you are not one of the lucky ones lying on a cholera cot in a hospital, but are lined up outside a hospital in the street.
Cholera is an ugly disease.

The bacteria makes a toxin that shreds the intestinal lining, causing white flecks that look like rice to be passed in huge volumes of watery diarrhea. In hospitals, these “rice water stools” are collected and measured in buckets so body fluids can be replaced. Adults can lose up to 22 liters a day while battling this devastating infection. Without fluid and electrolyte replacement, most victims die from shock.

Lucky patients that recover often still carry the bacteria and can infect others. They can even re-infect themselves.

Cholera bacteria can survive outside the human body in water. They do especially well in dirty water. Unsanitary conditions are breeding grounds for Vibrio cholera.
I read this morning in the New York Times that cholera has spread from the Hatian countryside to the crowded, unsanitary camps of the earthquake survivors in Port-au-Prince. The camps don’t have clean toilets and are often flooded when it rains. Over a million people live in filth and poverty. According to the article, health officials predict that over 270,000 people could get sick with Cholera over the next few years.
People like you, and me, and our kids.

What can you do to help? Support aid organizations that are mobilizing to get clean water, water purification supplies, and medical supplies to Haiti. Once the supplies arrive though, it’s up to the Hatian government to make sure workers are able to get them to the people most in need. Let’s hope they do.

(This blog post was originally posted on the Kitchen Pantry Scientist blog.)

Nov
04
2010

Disease Detectives
Disease DetectivesCourtesy Disease Detectives
Earlier this year I got the chance to work as the crew of high school staff in the Kitty Andersen Youth Science Center (http://www.smm.org/kaysc/) at the museum to create a series of web-based videos about infectious diseases for the Disease Detectives exhibit. We worked from January through August learning video production skills, learning about different infectious disease topics, talking to experts and folks on the museum floor. We're just getting the videos online now, and all of our videos will be on the exhibit website soon (www.diseasedetectives.org) but I wanted to share them here as well.

For this video, titled "Got Beef? The Story Behind Antibiotics and Livestock" the crew to a slaughter house on in South St. Paul, the Minnesota Department of Health, U of M St. Paul (at 7AM to see the cows grazing), Mississippi Market Co-op, and did hours of research, prep, and post production.
Got Beef? The Story Behind Antibiotics and Livestock from Disease Detectives on Vimeo.

You can check out the video here.

It's Friday, so it's time for another Science Friday video. Science Friday
Science Friday
Courtesy Science Friday
"Engineer James Bird estimates that he watched thousands of bubbles pop while he was getting his Ph.D. at Harvard University. With the help of high-speed cameras, Bird and his colleagues discovered that when interfacial bubbles--bubbles resting on water or a solid--pop, they give birth to a ring of baby bubbles. The discovery, published in Nature, has implications for soda drinkers and global climate estimates."
Jun
10
2010

What's better than learning something new? How about learning something new from a cartoon!

Cartoonist Darryl Cunningham writes online comics about science topics, amongst other things. He recently completed a sequence about MMR, autism, and employing a scientific world view. Even if you've read all facts inside, it's still interesting to see it all spelled out in a graphic format.

There are actually quite a few fantastic comic resources out there for understanding science. I think that for a lot of people the added visual stimulus really helps (myself included). I'm a big fan of Two-Fisted Science, which is an anthology of stories of great moments in modern physics. Subjects include Richard Feynman, Albert Einstein, and Neils Bohr. I had a chance to meet illustrator Steve Lieber (one of the authors of Two-Fisted Science) this weekend at Charlotte's Heroes Con. During our conversation he recommended the works of Jay Hosler, himself an apiologist (bee scientist). Hosler's two books, Clan Apis and The Sandwalk Adventures both deal with topics in biology. Clan Apis is all about the lifecycle of a honey bee while The Sandwalk Adventures involves Charles Darwin's conversations with his own eyebrow mites in an effort to convince them that he is not God and that evolution is true.

May
14
2010

Some of you may have said to yourselves over the years, “Yeah, yeah. Climate change. Hug a tree. Save the polar bears and manatees. Whatever. I’m just SO over the sexy megafauna, appeal-to-emotion approach.” Well, have I got a story for you!

In April, the University of Wisconsin, Madison’s Jonathan Patz, who holds a medical doctorate and a masters degree in public health, gave a riveting lecture at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment on how climate change affects public health. And pretty much everybody wants to live long and prosper, so I’m guessing you care about your health just as much as I do and want to know more…

Well, basically, there is increasing scientific evidence that climate change is hazardous to your health.

The end.

Just kidding!

The logic is that basic changes in the Earth’s physical environment affect public health. Take one example, as warmer climates trigger species migration, vector-borne diseases like malaria and Lyme disease will leave traditional zones to infest new land areas. That’s good news for some people, but bad news for others.

Yuck!: Polar bears might make better poster-children for climate change afterall
Yuck!: Polar bears might make better poster-children for climate change afterallCourtesy Scott Bauer, USDA

Let’s break that idea down: global climate change suggests that some regions will experience warmer annual temperatures. Mosquitoes (that carry malaria) and ticks (bringers of Lyme disease) are cold-blooded, which means they don’t make their own heat and have to “steal” heat from their surroundings. Regions with warmer annual temperatures are attractive real estate for cold-blooded critters. As climate change increases annual temperatures, tick and mosquito habitat ranges will shift. Like many people, mosquitoes and ticks will move into warmer, better neighborhoods. Unfortunately for their new neighbors, the baggage of these insects causes fever, vomiting, and diarrhea (malaria) or rash, joint pain, and numbness (Lyme disease). Yikes!

Other symptoms of climate change (i.e. extreme weather and rising sea levels) have the potential to increase the severity of diseases like heat stress, respiratory diseases like asthma, cholera, malnutrition, diarrhea, toxic red tides, and mental illness (due to forced migration and overcrowding).

Not to be a downer, Patz pointed out that tackling global climate change might be the greatest public health improvement opportunity of our time in terms of number of lives saved, hospital admissions avoided, and ultimately health care cost decreases (which everyone needs!).

Is there any other good news?? Uh, besides less frostbite? No, seriously: on the bright side, warmer weather should increase the amount of physical activity of the average person (not many of us like to run in the dead of winter, you know), and, as Russia’s Vladimir Putin put it, "…an increase of two or three degrees wouldn't be so bad for a northern country like Russia. We could spend less on fur coats, and the grain harvest would go up.” So, yeah, there is some good news, but the real question is: does it outweigh the bad stuff?

Feb
16
2010

What's wrong with Tut?: CT scans and DNA tests conducted over the past two years have uncovered several major problems that contributed to King Tut's death: malaria, broken leg, a club foot and restricted blood flow to Tut's left foot.
What's wrong with Tut?: CT scans and DNA tests conducted over the past two years have uncovered several major problems that contributed to King Tut's death: malaria, broken leg, a club foot and restricted blood flow to Tut's left foot.Courtesy Sanandreas
Being a boy king of Egypt had it’s share of downs along with all the gold and glitter.

CT scans and DNA testing conducted on the mummy to King Tutankhamun (King Tut for short) show that the boy pharaoh was suffering from several medical problems at the time of his death at age 19.

The contemporary medical testing shows that Tut had a cleft palate and a club foot and was suffering from malaria and a broken leg at the time that he died some 3,300 years ago. The results were announced today and will be published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Medical experts have also been able to untangle the web of intrigue as to who Tut’s parents were, sort of. DNA shows that Tut is the son of the previous pharaoh, Akhenaten, and his likely mother is an unidentified sister of Akhenaten. In total, 16 mummies underwent CT scanning to get a better picture of who Tut was and what the times were like when he was alive.

The 21st Century testing was able to answer more than half of Tut’s paternity questions by identifying his father. And while we know that Akhenaten’s sister was Tut’s mother, her mummified remains confirm Tut’s DNA, her identity is still unknown. It was not uncommon in New Kingdom Egypt for pharaohs to marry to their sisters.

The findings put to bed once and for all long-held speculation that Tut was murdered. That idea was fueled by a hole in his skull, but a 2005 scan of Tut’s mummy showed that hole was made as part of the mummification process.

The majesty that we associated with Tut based on the ornate furnishings found in his burial chamber may be a far cry from what life was like for the finals days of the boy king. The medical testing shows that Tut was a sickly teen who was done in by complications from the broken leg and malaria in his brain.

On top of that, Tut had a club foot that likely required him to use a cane. In fact, 130 canes or walking sticks have been found among his burial goods, with some of the canes showing wear and tear. Tut also suffered from Kohler's disease in which lack of blood flow was slowly destroying the bones of his left foot.

Another theory cleared up through the medical tests: Tut did not suffer from any medical conditions that would have given him female body characteristics or misshapen bones.

Want to learn more? Here’s a Q&A with Egyptologist Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, about the new Tut findings.

And here is even more in-depth coverage from National Geographic.

Bummed out that Tut was so sickly and need a pick-me-up? Do you really need a shot of Steve Martin's "King Tut" song right now? Enjoy (with a special guest appearance by Fonzie [aka Henry Winkler]). Maybe Steve needs to add a new verse to include all this new medical information.

Feb
12
2010

Do you remember last year's story about the laser-filled future of mosquito killing? Some folks were working on an automatic mosquito-killing device that could identify a mosquito flying dozens of feet away, and then blast it to death with a little laser.

Ah, it was like The World of Tomorrow, but yesterday. And so... I guess that means that The World of Tomorrow is now today! Let's check where our mosquito-zapper is at...

Here it is! Check out that link for slow-motion video of mosquitoes being fried to crisps in mid-air. It's a little pathetic, and a little hilarious. (Patharious.)

And here's the site for the company working on it.

Jan
03
2010

Pretty bacteria: Do not be fooled by the pastel colors- these things will kill you.
Pretty bacteria: Do not be fooled by the pastel colors- these things will kill you.Courtesy esterase
I bet regular bacteria have posters of their favorite superbug hung on their bedroom walls. I mean superbugs are just so much cooler than regular bacteria; they’re kind of the bad boys of the bacteria world. Regular bacteria do what they are told: they keel over when exposed to disinfectants and antibiotics. But not those rebellious superbugs. Superbugs have some kind of genetic mutation that allows them to survive in hostile, antimicrobial environments. Basic principles of natural selection come into play: the mutant bacterium survives in the presence of the antibiotic/disinfectant and then goes on to produce other bacteria with the same mutation, ultimately creating a new resistant colony. In this scenario, exposure to the antimicrobial agent (the antibiotic or disinfectant) is imperative. However, scientists now think that another scenario exists; one in which exposure is not required. In a recent study, these scientists found that the use of disinfectants in hospitals can lead to bacterial resistance to antibiotics, even if the bacteria haven’t been exposed to the antibiotics.

Researchers from the National University of Ireland added increasing amounts of disinfectant to petri dishes full of Pseudomonas aeruginosa (a bug that causes pneumonia in hospital patients, among other things) and the bug became immune not only to the disinfectant, but also to ciprofloxacin- the antibiotic used to treat the bug. Superbugs are essentially using their exposure to disinfectants as “teachable moments” for resisting antibiotics.

This is significant because now it seems that bacteria have one less hurdle to overcome in their mission to cause serious harm to patients (that’s not really their “mission,” I say that for dramatic effect). If superbugs can resist the disinfectant slathered on the countertops and doorknobs of hospitals, it’s possible that they could go on to infect patients who “for some reason” won’t respond to the antibiotics. Man, regular bacteria must be so jealous.

Officials in Cardiff confirmed today the world's first cases of human-to-human transmission of Tamiflu-resistant H1N1 influenza. It's not unexpected, but it is worrisome. Even though flu cases are down here in Minnesota and across the US, keep washing your hands!