Tag Archives: plague

more on space bacteria

Russian cosmonauts are claiming they have found bacteria on the outside of the International Space Station that have to have come from space. At least, they didn’t get on the ISS until the ISS was in space, meaning they already had to be there. Reading between the lines, that doesn’t mean the bacteria didn’t make their way from Earth to space at some point in the past, before the ISS was launched.

I wonder if harmless bacteria could go into space, mutate into something dangerous, then make their way back to Earth on a returning spacecraft. Has that story ever been done?

But The Andromeda Strain had a lame ending, as I recall.

what’s going on with mad cow?

Mad cow disease is scary because there is such a long time between when someone is infected and when they begin to show symptoms, the kind of disease that could spread through large portions of a population before anyone realizes it is there. I am not saying it has, I don’t know. This article in Alternet doesn’t really address the current status, but it goes through some interesting history of the first outbreak in the U.S.

On December 23, 2003, the USDA announced that a Holstein cow, imported from Canada and slaughtered in Moses Lake, Washington, tested positive for mad cow disease. Ann Veneman, USDA secretary at the time and other USDA officials, said the cow was discovered because she was a “downer”––unable to walk—which was how the system screened for mad cows. In other words, the system “worked.” The problem was three workers said the cow had walked just fine suggesting that the entire federal mad cow testing program was worthless. Congressional hearings ensued.

As it turned out, congressional troubles were the least of cattle producers’ problems. Within hours of the mad cow announcement, China, Mexico, Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, South Korea and ninety other countries banned US beef and 98 percent of the $3 billion overseas beef market vanished. (The only reason the EU didn’t ban US beef was it was already banned for its hormones oestradiol-17, trenbolone acetate, zeranol and melengestrol which EU officials said increased breast and prostate cancer risks.)

After the first mad cow, things got worse. Two more mad cows were found in the US in 2004 and they weren’t from Canada. One was born in Texas and the other Alabama. Worse, a USDA export verification report admitted that 29 downers at two unidentified slaughterhouses went into the human food supply and twenty were not tested for mad cow disease.

Most of the countries mentioned lifted their ban shortly afterward, but China apparently is just lifting it now, according to NPR:

Cooked chicken from birds grown and raised in China soon will be headed to America — in a trade deal that’s really about beef…

The Chinese appetite for beef is huge and growing, but American beef producers have been locked out of that market since a case of mad cow disease cropped up in the U.S. in 2003. In response, many countries, including South Korea, Japan, Mexico and China, banned imports of U.S. beef…

Many people long had seen China’s refusal to lift its ban on U.S. beef imports as a negotiating tactic, a tit for tat aimed at allowing Chinese chicken imports into the United States. The negotiations that led to the new trade deal have been going back and forth for more than a decade, stalled at one point by worries in Congress over China’s food-safety practices.

This might be good for the U.S. beef industry in the short term, but an exploding demand for beef can’t really be good for the world in the longer term. Maybe this is not the kind of industry of the future that the U.S. should be focusing on. I’ll admit I’m a hypocrite – I love a good cheeseburger, but I try to treat it as an occasional treat rather than a staple food.

“virgin soil epidemics” in the Americas

This is a seminal 1976 paper by Alfred Crosby on the epidemics that devastated Native Americans after Europeans first came. I’m sure there is plenty of scholarly work since then that may have refined this, but it is horrifying even if some of the details have changed. The most extreme estimates are that as many as 100 million people lived in the Americas pre-Columbus, or one-sixth of all humans alive at the time, and only a few million survived. If true, this is much worse than the Black Death in Europe. This would mean that Native American civilizations might have been equivalent in size and sophistication to European and Asian ones. We just don’t know.

I think this is also a cautionary tale for what a novel disease or combination of novel diseases could do to our current civilization, whether natural or man-made. He does point out though that genetic factors and never having been exposed before were only some of the factors. People at the time did not understand quarantine for example, and some practices for dealing with the dead led to more contagion. People might have been weakened by exotic diseases like smallpox, then finished off by diseases they would have experience with like malaria or pneumonia. They didn’t understand how hydration, nutrition, and keeping warm could keep their strength up to fight off secondary infections, or else people may have been too sick to fetch water and food and keep fires burning. Hopefully we can do much better today if and when some terrible epidemic strikes.

fear the walking dead

AMC is producing a (predictably pro-weapon) prequel show called Fear the Walking Dead. An excerpt is provided by Fresh Air:

KIM DICKENS: (As Madison) So why the knife? Hey – I could expel you just for crossing the threshold with that thing.

LINCOLN A. CASTELLANOS: (As Tobias) No. Please. We’re safer in numbers.

DICKENS: (As Madison) Safer from what? Tobias, please, don’t screw yourself like this. You’ve been working your ass off. You’re on track to go to college.

CASTELLANOS: (As Tobias) Yeah. No one’s going to college. No one’s doing anything they think they are.

DICKENS: (As Madison) What? What are you talking about?

CASTELLANOS: (As Tobias) Can I get my knife back, please?

DICKENS: (As Madison) No, you can’t get your knife back.

CASTELLANOS: (As Tobias) They say it’s not connected. They say that, but I don’t believe them. It is – from reports in five states. They don’t know if it’s a virus or a microbe. They don’t know, but it’s spreading.

Ah, fun stuff.


MERS in South Korea

Middle East Respiratory Syndrome” has popped up in South Korea.

A deadly virus with no known cure — Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS — has infected 13 people in South Korea since mid-May. The fast spread of the disease, from the first case confirmed on May 20 to more than a dozen by Saturday, is prompting criticism of health officials for not moving faster to quarantine suspected patients…

MERS is from the same family as the virus that triggered China’s 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS. Scientists first identified it in 2012, and since then, more than 1,100 cases have been reported in 23 countries, with the bulk majority of cases occurring in the Middle East.

So far, not only is there no known cure, there’s no vaccine to prevent it, either.

antibiotics on the farm

Here’s a journal article about antibiotic use on farms worldwide. Pigs get the highest doses relative to their body size, followed closely by chickens, then cows as a distant third. Developing countries are expected to increase their use by a lot as their populations grow and demand more meat.

Demand for animal protein for human consumption is rising globally at an unprecedented rate. Modern animal production practices are associated with regular use of antimicrobials, potentially increasing selection pressure on bacteria to become resistant. Despite the significant potential consequences for antimicrobial resistance, there has been no quantitative measurement of global antimicrobial consumption by livestock. We address this gap by using Bayesian statistical models combining maps of livestock densities, economic projections of demand for meat products, and current estimates of antimicrobial consumption in high-income countries to map antimicrobial use in food animals for 2010 and 2030. We estimate that the global average annual consumption of antimicrobials per kilogram of animal produced was 45 mg⋅kg−1, 148 mg⋅kg−1, and 172 mg⋅kg−1 for cattle, chicken, and pigs, respectively. Starting from this baseline, we estimate that between 2010 and 2030, the global consumption of antimicrobials will increase by 67%, from 63,151 ± 1,560 tons to 105,596 ± 3,605 tons. Up to a third of the increase in consumption in livestock between 2010 and 2030 is imputable to shifting production practices in middle-income countries where extensive farming systems will be replaced by large-scale intensive farming operations that routinely use antimicrobials in subtherapeutic doses. For Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, the increase in antimicrobial consumption will be 99%, up to seven times the projected population growth in this group of countries. Better understanding of the consequences of the uninhibited growth in veterinary antimicrobial consumption is needed to assess its potential effects on animal and human health.

my vacation reading list

Here’s my vacation reading list, just in case anyone is interested:

The Fear Index (about a hedge fund running an automated trading algorithm – way more fun to read than it sounds)

Count Zero (the sequel to William Gibson’s Neuromancer – great dystopian technology and artificial intelligence fiction although similar to Neuromancer, he uses a lot of made-up slang, weird sentence structure, and multiple points of view that keep me from getting really absorbed in the book)

Monster Hunter International (what it sounds like – pure escape fiction, basically an updated Ghostbusters with a Walking Dead-like gun fetish, violent but lighthearted)

MaddAdam (the third and final book in Margaret Attwood’s Oryx and Crake series)

The original I Am Legend (because why not, I seem to be on a monster kick – if I don’t get to this one, I may save it for around Halloween)

Professor Peter Piot

No, he didn’t pick a peck of pickled peppers. He “co-discovered the Ebola virus in 1976“. And in 2015, just now, he said this:

“Our world is getting more vulnerable to big epidemics, because of population expansion, huge mobility and more intense contact between animals and people.

“My concern,” he said, “is that when [the Ebola outbreak] is over we will just forget about it. We need to be better prepared and we need to invest in vaccines and treatment.

“It’s like a fire brigade – you don’t start to set up a fire brigade when some house is on fire.”

JAMA on Ebola

Here’s a Journal of the American Medical Association editorial on the level of preparedness in the United States for something like Ebola:

The Dallas case raises significant concerns about national preparedness for public health emergencies. Health emergencies (eg, anthrax, SARS, novel influenzas, and hurricanes Katrina and Sandy) spurred federal preparedness planning and funding, including the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act (reauthorized in 2013),2 to ensure that federal, state, and more than 3500 local health departments coordinate their efforts effectively in disasters. Significant investments have been made in staff training, interagency coordination, legal reform, and planning.

Preparedness efforts like these are essential, but inadequate. Overall, investment in key health system functions has been in decline. The CDC’s 2013 budget declined 10%, or nearly $1 billion, from 2012.3 Since 2008, state and local public health agencies have lost more than 50 000 staff (almost 20% of their workforce),4 requiring cuts to preparedness programs. Many EMS agencies and hospitals are also strained, leading the Institute of Medicine to warn in 2012 of an “enormous potential for confusion, chaos, and flawed decision-making”5 in a public health emergency. Insufficient funding in a research and data infrastructure limits the ability to identify weaknesses and learn from mistakes. Rare, novel infections such as Ebola expose the difficulty of diagnosis and adherence to arduous infection control protocols. Following the nurses’ EVD diagnosis in Dallas, future Ebola patients may be directed to centers with advanced training, PPE, and well-equipped isolation rooms. Vinson was transferred to Emory Hospital in Atlanta on October 15.

Now, the American Medical Association is a special interest group. The United States has the world’s largest economy and spends more than any other country on health care, even as a fraction of that economy. So I don’t like to hear that the answer is throwing more money at the problem. I think we have a patchwork of doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies each looking out for their own interests, and what it adds up to shouldn’t really be called a “health care system”. But we’ve been warned – we need to get a lot smarter before we have to deal with something like SARS or a novel influenza.

“how plagues really work”

This article from Aeon argues that we shouldn’t worry so much about some random mutation of an animal virus coming out of the jungle and destroying us. Instead, it is the conditions in human society that allow new diseases to evolve and adapt to us that we should be more concerned about.

According to this argument, new germs that erupt into our species will be potential triggers for pandemics, while germs that have a long history in a host species will have evolved to be relatively benign.

Many health experts take the notion further, contending that any coming plague will come from human intrusion into the natural world. One risk, they suggest, comes when hungry people in Africa and elsewhere forge deep into forests and jungles to hunt ‘bushmeat’ – rodents, rabbits, monkeys, apes – with exposure to dangerous pathogens the unhappy result. Those pathogens move silently among wild animals, but can also explode with terrifying ferocity among people when humans venture where they shouldn’t. According to the same line of thought, another proposed risk would result when birds spread a new pandemic strain to chickens in factory farms and, ultimately, to us.

But there’s something in these scenarios that’s not entirely logical. There is nothing new in the intimate contact between animals and people. Our hominid ancestors lived on wildlife before we ever evolved into Homo sapiens: that’s why anthropologists call them hunter-gatherers, a term that still applies to some modern peoples, including bushmeat hunters in West Africa. After domesticating animals, we lived close beside them, keeping cows, pigs and chickens in farmyards and even within households for thousands of years. Pandemics arise out of more than mere contact between human beings and animals: from an evolutionary point of view, there is a missing step between animal pathogen and human pandemic that’s been almost completely overlooked in these terrifying but entirely speculative ideas.

According to the evolutionary epidemiologist Paul W Ewald of the University of Louisville, the most dangerous infectious diseases are almost always not animal diseases freshly broken into the human species, but diseases adapted to humanity over time: smallpox, malaria, tuberculosis, leprosy, typhus, yellow fever, polio. In order to adapt to the human species, a germ needs to cycle among people – from person to person to person. In each iteration, the strains best adapted to transmission will be the ones that spread. So natural selection will push circulating strains towards more and more effective transmission, and therefore towards increasing adaptation to human hosts. This process necessarily takes place among people.

It goes on to talk about some major plagues in history, including the 1918 influenza which is “the rod by which all other pandemics are measured”.

We could take some comfort in all this – the diseases that cause the most suffering are the ones that evolve within and amongst people, suggesting that there should always be sub-groups of people who develop immunity to them. This suggests that despite terrible suffering, they shouldn’t represent an existential threat to the species. There is a plague in history that I find even more horrifying that 1918 or the Black Death, and that is the almost complete ravaging of Native American populations after 1492. That was a case of diseases that evolved in and amongst human populations, that were then unleashed on another isolated population (possibly a very large one) that had no resistance to them. So as much as we worry about international travel spreading germs, maybe it means it would be harder for some germ to completely sneak up on us, since there are virtually no human populations that are truly isolated anymore.

There is still the worst possible scenario though – somebody taking one of the ugly human-adapted diseases mentioned in this article, and purposely modifying it into something that the population has no immunity to.