Stories tagged infectious disease

Just to follow-up on the recent posts, the Minnesota State Fair has decided to allow the public access to the swine barn this year, even in light of heightened risk of H3N2v flu. You can read all the details about the decision here.


Am I a flu risk?: A new strain of pig-borne flu virus my just shut down the doors to the public of the Minnesota State Fair swine barn this summer.
Am I a flu risk?: A new strain of pig-borne flu virus my just shut down the doors to the public of the Minnesota State Fair swine barn this summer.Courtesy wattpublishing
I don’t know if you are following the recent news about a new flu strain or not but it looks like the strain (H3N2v) is now in MN. Pigs can spread this virus to other pigs and humans through airborne droplets (coughs and sneezes). If you are a meat eater, don’t worry you can’t catch it by eating pork.

Will you be visiting the pig barns at the Minnesota State fair this year?

One case of the new swine flu (H3N2v) has been confirmed in MN. For information about this new strain see the fact sheet posted at . I’ve heard 3 different reports on how concerned we should be about the situation:

  • MN Department of Health
  • – feel free to visit the swine barn unless you are in a high-risk group (Children under five and people age 65 and older, pregnant women and people with underlying health conditions like asthma, diabetes, heart disease or neurological problems). Remember don’t bring food in the barn (I’m always amazed when I see people eating in the barns at the fair, but this is due to food borne illness not the flu), and wash your hands after visiting the barns.

  • MN State Fair
  • – It is safe to visit the barns and fair officials have been taking extra precautions.

  • Dr. Mike Osterholm
  • , Director of the Center of Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) commented on MN public radio that he feels pigs should not be allowed at the fair – there is too much risk. The CIDRAP website has a summary of the situation as well.

    Do you think Dr. Osterholm is being alarmist or is the threat real? Will you be visiting the swine barn at the fair? What questions do you have about the situation? Do you need more information? I'd love to hear your thoughts!


Before you turn me into bacon, I might give you the flu: Pigs will be under extra scrutiny at the Minnesota State Fair this year as a new strain of "swine flu" has been detected around the country.
Before you turn me into bacon, I might give you the flu: Pigs will be under extra scrutiny at the Minnesota State Fair this year as a new strain of "swine flu" has been detected around the country.Courtesy titanium22
The Minnesota State Fair starts next week and as you prepare to go, you just might want to assess your flu risk in the swine barn.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota have just announced the results of a study they conducted at the 2009 fair, testing pigs for the H1N1 flu virus that was spreading widely across the nation at that time.

Their findings showed that 19 percent of the pigs they tested at the fair that year had the virus. Some appeared to be perfectly healthy, exhibiting no flu symptoms. Two pig exhibitors from that year's fair from the same family came down with the flu from pigs they were showing, researchers added.

Adding some urgency to the announcement of the study is a new nationwide outbreak of a different strain of swine flu this year: H3N2v. More than 150 people across the country have come down with symptoms of this new flu.

So does this mean you should stay away from the pig barn? Not entirely, fair officials say. Veterinarians will be conducting extensive testing of all pigs coming to the fair this year. And the fair has issued this guidelines to help people decide how much time, if any, they should spend with the pigs.

• Avoid eating in the barns
• Use hand-washing stations after visiting
• Skip the barn if you feel ill

People who are at high risk for flu should also consider avoiding the swine exhibit entirely – including children younger than 5, pregnant women, people 65 and older and those with chronic conditions.

You may now resume eating your pork chop on a stick, but first share with Science Buzz readers your thoughts about visiting the pig barn at this year's fair.


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.


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.)


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 ( 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 ( 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.


I am not bad! Only confused and hungry!: Think of Angel in season 3 of Buffy! I'm like that!
I am not bad! Only confused and hungry!: Think of Angel in season 3 of Buffy! I'm like that!Courtesy Desmodus
Holy moly!

Vampire bats have been attacking people living in the Amazon rainforest in Peru! And it turns out that the bats have rabies! 500 people have been attacked, and four people have died (all of the fatalities, tragically, have been kids).

The articles I found on the attacks don't make a link between the attacks and the rabies—it seems that some South American populations of vampire bats just have a higher incidence of rabies. (Bats, in general, have a relatively low incidence of the disease; only 0.5% of bats carry the virus.)

It's unusual for vampire bats to attack humans. Typically they will feed on the blood of sleeping animals, but if their prey species become scarce, they will sometimes turn to humans for food. According to the BBC article on the attacks, some experts believe that destruction of the bats habitat, and the ensuing scarcity of prey, have caused them to attack humans, or that the attacks are the result changing temperatures in the Peruvian Amazon in recent years.

In any case, I'd get prepared if I were y'all. Holy water, crosses, wooden stakes, and tennis rackets.

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."

What is it?: It's... ah... you know, whatever.
What is it?: It's... ah... you know, whatever.Courtesy Reytan
Roll up your sleeves and prepare a glass of filtered water, Buzzketeers, because it’s time to learn about the Guinea worm. It’s time to learn about the Guinea worm… hard!

In case the title of this post didn’t spoil it for you already, or if your mother printed out the page but cut off the title, or in case your eyes just don’t read letters that big, the Guinea worm grows to be up to three feet long. Inside you. And even though everything that enters my body must first pass through flame, it still freaks me out.

The parasitic guinea worm, or dracunculiasis (which means “afflicted with little dragons”—you’ll see why in a second), was once found in 20 countries across Asia and Africa, but improved sanitary conditions have reduced its range to just 4 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Which is cool, because the Guinea worm is super gross and bad, but not good enough, because the Guinea worm is super gross and bad.

The worm works like this: little worm larvae swim around in puddles and ponds until they get eaten by teeny, tiny crustaceans called copepods (sort of like little shrimp). They live and grow inside the copepods until the copepods get swallowed by people drinking unfiltered water. (Just to be clear, this isn’t just any unfiltered water. If you’ve got electricity to power a computer to read this, there’s pretty much zero chance that there are any worm-carrying copepods in your water. If it came from a tap and not a puddle, you’re probably cool. And even if it came from a puddle, you’re probably still cool.) The copepods get dissolved in the drinkers’ stomach acid, but not the baby worms, which then move from the stomach to the abdominal cavity. There, the worms mate. The male worms die and get absorbed, but the female worms wriggle their way deeper into the body, and grow. And grow and grow. Until they’re about three feet long. They live inside their human host for a year, and then they form a blister somewhere on the surface of the person’s body. When the blister bursts, the female worm emerges just a little bit. The worm releases chemicals that cause the blister to have a very painful burning sensation, and when the host puts the affected area in water to cool it, the worm releases hundreds of thousands of worm larvae into the water, where the cycle can begin again.

As if that whole experience weren’t uncomfortable enough, the treatment isn’t a whole lot better. Because there’s no medicine for Guinea worm infection, the adult worm itself must be removed. The way to do that is to grab the exposed bit of the worm and wrap it around a twig or a piece of cloth, and then twisting the twig. But it has to be done slooooowly so as to not break the worm while it’s still inside your muscles—the process, which is said to be extremely painful, can take up to a month before the worm is fully removed. It’s thought that the ancient symbol for medicine, a snake wrapped around a rod may have been inspired by this procedure.

So, you know… ouch, blech, ouch.

Becoming infected once confers no protection from getting infected again, so people can get Guinea worms over and over again, and in addition to being painful, the blister the worm creates can make the sufferer vulnerable to more dangerous infections.

The good news is that preventing infection is relatively simple; infected people shouldn’t wash in water that will be used for drinking, and simple filters can keep people from ingesting the copepods that carry the worm larvae.

President Jimmy “Billy who?” Carter’s non-profit organization, The Carter Center, has been working for the last 20 years to eradicate the parasite. Despite some pretty significant barriers, it is expected that dracunculialisis will be the second disease, after smallpox, to be completely eradicated through human efforts. (Here’s a recent article on that.)

From what I’ve read (and what the Carter Center says), it looks like humans are the Guinea worm’s only host. So it seems to me that eradicating the infection would cause the extinction of the species. Think about that for a second. Usually sciencey types are pretty much completely against driving other organisms to extinction. But it seems like this one… considering how it pretty much only makes life worse for people who are already dealing with some serious challenges… should maybe… maybe… go extinct? I mean, obviously, right? But try that one on for size; I bet you haven’t often said to yourself that you’re cool with something going extinct. It’s a strange experience.

(If you just can’t deal with it, Here’s a website devoted to saving the Guinea worm. It’s satire, but subtle enough that you could probably play along. But, um, remember that sometimes the Guinea worm emerges from the eyes or genitals of its host. Just saying.)


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.