Stories tagged infectious disease

OK, I think the history of infectious disease is fascinating, and I'm a sucker for many things gross, but I'm still a bit surprised that I loved this little quiz game about the bubonic plague as much as I did. You gotta play. Did you love the animation and sound effects as much as I did?


His eyes and nipples are killing mosquitoes: But his robo brain is targeted on humans alone.
His eyes and nipples are killing mosquitoes: But his robo brain is targeted on humans alone.Courtesy TheAlieness GiselaGiardino23
If you’re like me, y’all probably woke up this morning thinking, “I wonder if the end of the world will come with a zombie apocalypse, or a laser-armed, ‘screw you dad, you’re not the boss of me’-style robot rebellion?” It’s a valid question, and the answer could be a major factor in how your week plays out. (Happy Monday, by the way. Way to go on another weekend.)

But, you know what? Zombie apocalypse or robot uprising… who says it can’t be both? Check out The Wall Street journal—it seems to me that well-intended malaria research is making each option a likely future (i.e. inevitable).

All sorts of scientists are getting terribly clever ideas about eliminating mosquitoes (and therefore malaria) these days. The Gates Foundation (among other organizations) has mosquitoes on the brain, and there plenty of money out there for anti-malaria research. And, in the tradition of Bill Gates himself, some of the projects are looking pretty smart, and kind of crazy.

Because the WSJ article only mentions it in passing, I’ll get the zombie apocalypse thing out of the way now. One of the many projects being funded by the Gates Foundation is the brainchild of a Japanese scientist who hopes to turn mosquitoes into “flying syringes.” That horrifying mental image aside, the idea is that mosquitoes could be engineered to deliver vaccinations to their hosts with every bite. It’s a nice idea… but come on! Hasn’t he ever played a video game? Let’s get real here. According to well-accepted science fiction, that sort of project always results in a zombie plague. Zombies, of course, can’t get measles, so the project would technically by a success, but I’m not prepared to get behind that one quite yet.

Now the robot/laser thing… that’s where the thrust of the article is. Apparently there are some astrophysicists out there with time in their hands, and they’re dragging the concept of the flyswatter kicking and screaming into this new century. The flyswatter of the future is similar in concept to the flyswatter of the past (also known as “the flyswatter”), in that they both are useful for killing flying insects. They differ in that the flyswatter of the past is a cheap, hand-operated device, capable of both killing a bug a couple feet away from you, as well as occupying the attention of a 7-year-old for an entire summer afternoon. The flyswatter of the future, on the other hand, is a high-power laser-based, computer-operated weapon, capable of both eliminating millions of mosquitoes within a hundred feet of the device, as well as ending civilization as we know it.

The device is a lot like the ill-fated “Star Wars” laser-based missile defense system tossed around in the 80s. And that makes sense, because the whole thing was thought up by one of the brains behind the “Star Wars” system.

The mosquito zapper works by having a computer visually recognize mosquitoes from a distance, and then instantly blasting them with a laser beam. The laser isn’t powerful enough to hurt a human, but it can turn a mosquito into a smoking husk in a fraction of a second. The computer can even tell the difference between male and female mosquitoes based on their wing beats. It’s an important distinction, because it’s only female mosquitoes that drink blood and transfer disease (whereas males just drink plant nectar).

The prototype that Star Wars-guy’s team is working on is made of parts they were able to find on ebay—a 35mm camera zoom lens, a Dell PC, a few flashlights, a little box of mirrors and lasers, and a 10-gallon aquarium full of mosquitoes. The system was able to bullseye the bugs from about 100 feet away.

Aside from the so far overlooked ethical issue of putting a laser in the hands of a robot (figuratively), the project still has a long ways to go in its development. It currently relies on a reflective screen behind the mosquito tank (the flashlights create a silhouette of each mosquito on the screen, and it’s this figure that the computer recognizes), and, to my knowledge, the areas of the planet affected by malaria are somewhat larger than a 10-gallon aquarium. It still doesn’t quite match up to the low-tech reliability of a mosquito net, either.

The scientists envision a final version of the machine being used to create an invisible wall around a village to keep out mosquitoes, or being mounted on a drone aircraft, which could bring death from above for billions of the bugs. And, naturally, it could shoot hot little lasers at the tops of our heads. (Which I would hate.)

Aside from making the device harmless to humans, the researchers are also figuring out how to ensure that the mosquito death ray doesn’t automatically destroy everything that is small and flies. We don’t want to kill butterflies, for instance, because they’re so pretty. And we don’t want to kill bees, because we need them to pollinate crops. And to make honey. And if the robots do go all Skynet on us, bees and butterflies are probably where they’d start.

Pretty neat stuff, anyhow, and not generally what you’d think of when it comes to anti-malaria research.

Two recent tragic news events – Sunday's fatal shooting at a St. Louis-area church and last month's chimp attack on a woman in Connecticut – are being pinpointed possibly to a similar cause: Lyme disease. Relatives of the church shootist say that he never was the same person after being bitten by a wood tick and contracting Lyme disease a decade ago. And the pet chimp that mauled a woman in Connecticut was also suffering from Lyme disease. USA Today ties together the two stories right here. I admit I didn't know about this dimension to Lyme disease until seeing this story. I was at first skeptical about such a cause/effect relationship, but am now willing to consider it as a possibility. What do you think?


Human Immunodefieciency Virus (HIV): Photo Credit: C. Goldsmith
Human Immunodefieciency Virus (HIV): Photo Credit: C. GoldsmithCourtesy Public Domain
Researchers at the University of Minnesota announced the discovery of a simple guard against the transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Microbiologists Dr. Ashley Haase and Patrick Schlievert announced their findings in the journal Nature. Haase has been studying the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) for more than 25 years. Schlievert is an expert in infectious diseases.

The prevention is relatively simple: an over-the-counter lubricating jelly is mixed with a common and inexpensive food additive known as glycerol monlaurate (GML) and applied to the sex organs of female laboratory monkeys. The test subjects were then exposed to the simian version of the virus (SIV). In all five cases the treated monkeys showed no signs of infection while untreated monkeys all became infected. (One treated subject later became infected although researchers aren’t sure exactly why. It may be she became infected after the study ended).

The new treatment shows promise in fighting the sexual transmission of the AIDS virus in women and could lead to prevention of the disease spreading in both sexes. Every day HIV infects more than 5000 people somewhere in the world, and in Africa women make up more than half the new cases.

HIV spreads through a person’s bloodstream by hijacking the host-body’s own immune cells activated to fight the infection. HIV transmission can take place through unprotected sexual contact with an infected person, or by the sharing of needles with someone who is HIV positive. A pregnant woman with HIV can sometimes infect her baby in utero, or during birth, or via breast-feeding. Infection via blood transfusion is less common now that most blood banks screen for the AIDS virus.

Schlievert warns that this is only a treatment to guard against further transmission of the virus responsible for AIDS (as well as other sexually transmitted diseases), not a cure for those already stricken with the disease.

Isn’t it remarkable that a compound of a common water-based personal lubricant and inexpensive (1 cent per dose) food additive found in ice cream and chewing gum could lead to a simple way of guarding against infection from this devastating disease?

Story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune
HIV transmission info


From left to right, top to bottom: "Talk to the hand."; An adult-themed ventriloquism act; "Pull it, or I'll have your family sent to the moon!"; and "I put a tapeworm in your rice!"Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
I’m sure you’ll all be glad to hear that billionaire comedian Bill Gates is keeping it real the only way he knows how: experimental performance art.

While giving a talk on malaria at the Technology, Entertainment, and Design conference in Long Beach, California, this week, Gates kept his fellow wealthy tech dudes amused by releasing a swarm of malarial mosquitoes into the conference hall. For a few moments, the delegates were treated to the experience of what it must be like to be intentionally infected with a deadly tropical disease by one of the very few human beings richer than them.

Not one to carry a joke too far, however, Gates quickly donned his Ashton Kutcher trucker hat, and let out a relieving “psych!” None of the mosquitoes were infected! The stunt (or “punk”) was intended to remind the attendees of the conference that, as usual, they were safe from malaria.

“There are places in the world,” cackled Gates, “Where it’s possible to contract malaria even without the help of the richest man on the planet. Think about that! We spend lots more money on crazy rich-person medical procedures than on malaria prevention programs, and y’all should get your ethical priorities in line.”

Everyone at the conference ended up having a super good time, and nobody left with a high fever and severe vomiting. But next time, Gates promised, if malaria is still a problem, he would, “trap each and every one of you poindexters in a net full of dengue-infected mosquitoes.”

Man, the world is so exciting when you make an effort to change reality a little.


Bird flu rears its head again in China

Bird flu death in China
Bird flu death in ChinaCourtesy broterham
A two year old girl in northern China has tested positive for bird flu. Early this month, January 5, a 19-year-old Beijing woman died of bird flu after handling poultry. She had purchased ducks at a market in Hebei Province, which neighbors Beijing. Although she had close contact with 116 people, no one around her has fallen ill.

Pandemic possibilities worry officials

Human-to-human transmission of avian flu is rare, but officials worry the virus could mutate and become a deadly pandemic. H5N1 has led to 248 deaths worldwide since 2003, including 21 in China.

Source articles:
Click this link to read all CNN articles about bird flu


A new law in New Jersey and a new book brings vaccines into the news again. A New Jersey law now requires parents to get influenza vaccine for their preschool age children as well as other vaccines for their older school age children. For more detailed information read this article in the New York Times or review the requirements on the New Jersey Department of Health website.

I have to say that as a parent of small children, I want to know that the children they hang-out with all day have been vaccinated. Vaccines don't always produce the intended immunity and I don't want them getting sick with anything more serious than the usual infections. Actually I don't want them to get sick at all - but I can't control everything.

A new book written by Paul Offit, a pediatrician, called Autism's False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure defends vaccines. The book traces the history of autism theories and is widely supported by by pediatricians, autism researchers, vaccine companies and medical journalists. See this article for more information about the book. It sounds like it could be a great resource. We need to remember how bad some of these diseases are that we are trying to prevent. Many children have died from infectious diseases - I'm happy we can prevent many of them.

Salmonella link to peanut butter
Salmonella link to peanut butterCourtesy

The source of the salmonella outbreak that has sickened 399 people in 42 states since September may be peanut butter, Minnesota health officials said Friday.
Labs are now trying to confirm whether the strain, or serotype, found in the peanut butter -- Salmonella Typhimurium, the most common type found in the U.S. -- is the one infecting people around the country. (Read more in Scientific American)

It is being called an 'outbreak' and so far 388 people in the US have been diagnosed with Salmonella typhimurium. This is a different strain of Salmonella than found in peppers in 2007. This strain is most commonly found in poultry, cheese and eggs. For a story about the 'outbreak' see this Reuters article. Remember to cook your poultry and eggs, eat pasteurized cheese and use good food handling procedures in your kitchen!

A study in Finland suggests that the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine protects boys as well or better than it does girls. (The vaccine is currently licensed in the US for women ages 9-26. ) HPV causes less cancer in men than it does in women, but vaccinating boys could help protect them and their sexual partners against the virus. But the shot series is very expensive and public-health dollars are always scarce, so a recommendation that boys be vaccinated may be a while in coming.

More on the HPV vaccine