Tag Archives: epidemiology

How 600 Citizens Helped to Document an Underwater Epidemic

[A Sunflower Sea Star with several arms missing. Photo by Jerry Kirkhart via Flickr & CC 2.0 License.] 

In 2013,  something strange started happening to the starfish, or sea stars, that live along North America’s Pacific Coast. Casual observers began reporting starfish that were “dissolving” or “melting”.

What you first see is they start getting spots on them,” explains marine veterinarian Joseph “Joe” Gaydos of University of California Davis. “They [the sea stars]  start shrinking, and then legs start falling off…Legs will fall off and then crawl around, so it really is like something out of a horror show.”

In 2014,  researchers were able to identify a viral culprit as the immediate cause of the disintegrating sea stars, but we still know very little about how it spreads or which starfish species are most affected by it.

The dying sea stars that were easiest to spot were the ones that live close to shore.  But no one knew what the mysterious Sea Star Wasting Disease (SSWD) was doing to the sea stars deep underwater and in the open ocean. 

“When the sea star wasting disease hit in the Salish Sea in 2013, my first thought was, ‘Gosh, we have 29 species of sea stars. Who’s going to get hurt?’”  Gaydos told me over the phone. 

Luckily, the Salish Sea, an area which includes Puget Sound in Washington State and the Gulf Islands in British Columbia, Canada,  is home to an organization called REEF. Since 2006, REEF has been training amateur divers to count the organisms they see, and over 8,000 of those dives have included sea star counts. 

Gaydos and his colleagues, led by Diego Montecino-Latorre, analyzed the data from REEF’s dives. They also supplemented the REEF data by systematically criss-crossing the Salish Sea’s basins, counting the starfish they saw.

And the data tell a story of devastation. At least, for some of the sea stars.  Continue reading “How 600 Citizens Helped to Document an Underwater Epidemic” »

The Case of the Infected Fruit Bats

[Photo  courtesy of Brian Giesen via Creative Commons & Flickr]

“Pitch Imperfect” is a series of blog posts where I highlight stories that I pitched but didn’t quite sell and discuss why it was tough to sell them. The goal is to share both interesting research stories and some of the obstacles in getting them into the news cycle.

Proposed Headline:

How Fruit Bats Spread Ebola and Hendra Viruses Without Getting Sick

Proposed Dek (aka “the sub-headline” or  “social media blurb”)

Unlike most mammalian immune systems which leap into action in response to threats, fruit bats’ immune systems are “on” all the time.

The Pitch (as sent on February 23rd 2016)

Flying foxes– aka fruit bats or megabats— can harbor viruses that are strong enough to tear a human body apart without exhibiting a single symptom.

Or more precisely, while viruses like Ebola and Hendra virus set off violent (and often deadly) immune system chain reactions in humans, fruit bats’ immune systems are able to nip viral infections in the bud right away.

Unfortunately, that means that healthy and highly mobile bats can inadvertently end up transporting viruses like SARS, MERS, Ebola, and Hendra to new locations. However, studying fruit bats’ ability to control viral populations without collateral damage may eventually help humans learn how to coexist with our own volatile immune systems.

Continue reading “The Case of the Infected Fruit Bats” »

Kimberly Wasserman of LVEJO on “Killing a Midwest Generation”

The Talk:

Killing a Midwest Generation

In Plain English:

How a Chicago non-profit from a low-income neighborhood got an asthma-inducing coal plant shut down

The Speaker:

Kimberly Wasserman of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO)

The Sponsor:

Fossil Free MIT

What it covered:

When Kimberly Wasserman of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) took the podium at MIT’s Sloan School of Business and Management, she didn’t fawn; she was direct: “We never stop our community members from asking questions during our presentations,” she said. “And this isn’t that different.”

Bold move from someone who was just introduced to an MIT audience as “a community college graduate” and “an example of how you don’t need a degree to make a difference.” Wasserman is a community organizer with LVEJO, a community-based organization out of Little Village, a predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago. Continue reading “Kimberly Wasserman of LVEJO on “Killing a Midwest Generation”” »

Asleep by Molly Caldwell Crosby: A great epidemic history story, up until the last chapter

The book:

Asleep: The Forgotten Epidemic that Remains One of Medicine’s Greatest Mysteries by Molly Caldwell Crosby (2010)

What it’s about:

Asleep is the story of the encephalitis lethargica epidemic that followed in the wake of the 1918 flu. Encephalitis lethargica is mainly known by the nickname “Sleeping Sickness”, but shouldn’t be confused with African trypanosomiasis, a tsetse-fly-borne malady that also goes by the “Sleeping Sickness” moniker. The two diseases are unrelated (as far as we know) but have vaguely similar symptoms.) It is terrifying.

Each encephalitis lethargica case began with an innocuous sore throat. Most people thought nothing of it at first. But then weird things began to happen. Patients began to fall asleep and not wake up for days or weeks or else began to lose motor control of their own bodies. They moved like zombies or puppets on strings. Still others retained normal motor function but began to feel uncontrollable violent urges, while remaining completely lucid and logical in normal conversation. (There was one story of a teenaged girl who dug her own eyes out of their sockets with her fingernails and then calmly denied doing any such thing because they had “fallen out during the night”. Otherwise, her behavior was completely rational.)

I couldn’t help but think of the Reavers on Firefly. (If you haven’t seen Serenity, I don’t want to spoil it for you. But seriously? Why haven’t you seen Serenity?)

Asleep follows the doctors and neurologists who tried to help these patients. Their efforts were overshadowed by the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, fragmented by war, complicated by the pathogen’s invisibility (whatever caused sleeping sickness couldn’t be isolated under microscopes of the day), and hamstringed by the fact that the symptoms varied so widely. In fact, sleeping sickness initially appeared to be several different diseases.

Crosby is working off of case studies from the era, so the overall effect is almost like reading a series of interconnected short stories (featuring some of the same lead detectives). Separately, the chapters are kind of creepy and puzzling, but together they add up into a portrait of the neurology and epidemiology fields in their nascent state.

The Upsides:

It’s incredibly vivid and well researched. My favorite passages in the book actually had nothing to do with science; they were the passages where Crosby describes the bustling streets of 1910s & 1920s New York City. Her descriptions are extraordinarily cinematic, and I loved the way she presented the history of the disease almost as an anthology of stories based on the original case studies. Plus, it’s just an interesting disease. Creepy, ethereal, & unresolvable. Continue reading “Asleep by Molly Caldwell Crosby: A great epidemic history story, up until the last chapter” »