Hot models!

One of the things I love about science–but that can also be frustrating–is that every new piece of information leads to a new unanswered question. We’ve learned so much about microbiology and human disease since the time of Koch and Pasteur, but in many other ways, we’re still at square one. One reason is because research over the last century has largely focused on disease-causing organisms–and within those, many studies have focused on identifying factors that allow these organisms to cause disease. This concentration has led to many breakthroughs (such as vaccine targets), but it has also left a number of notable shortcomings in our knowledge. For instance, I’ve written previously mentioning just how little we know about our own commensal flora. Another area where we have a surprising dearth of knowledge is the transmission of infectious agents.
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Emerging Disease and Zoonoses #17–How now, mad cow

People make terrible jokes about “mad cow” disease. (“Why is PMS called PMS? Because mad cow was already taken.”) Pundits use it as an example of an over-hyped disease (and to be fair, estimates of total cases due to the consumption of contaminated beef in the UK have varied widely, ranging from a few thousand up to well over 100,000). Vegetarians note it as one benefit that comes from their soyburgers. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion.

So-called “mad cow” disease, in humans, is a progressive neurological disorder more correctly called variant Creuzfield-Jacob disease (vCJD). This is due to infection with an agent called a prion. Additional background can be found here, but briefly, the prion is actually a misfolded form of a normal host protein (called PrPc, standing for “prion protein, cellular form”). Its a concern to human health largely because the disease swept through cattle herds in the UK in the 1980s, and it is uncertain just how many humans unknowingly consumed contaminated beef–and therefore, how many may eventually develop vCJD.

vCJD is one of a family of transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs); others in this family include scrapie (which affects sheep), chronic wasting disease (which affects deer, elk, and moose, among others), and another human TSE called kuru (discussed further below).
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Question for the medical/pharmaceutical folks

I’ve heard quite a bit about pharmacists who’ve refused to fill prescriptions for contraceptives due to personal moral stance. But I’d not heard any who refused to fill a prescription for painkillers until yesterday.

Here’s the story. A relative just had surgery to remove a lump in her breast. Her doctor sent her home with a scrip for Vicodin, which she sent her husband off to fill at the local pharmacy. They refused to give out the drug, sending him home instead with a codeine-containing drug. She’s allergic to codeine, so she sent the husband back to the pharmacy to get the Vicodin as prescribed. They sent him home, telling him the drug didn’t contain any codeine. She sent him back, with the codeine ingredient circled (I wish I could think of the brand name of the drug, but it’s not coming to me). This time, they sent him home empty-handed, saying she needed to have her doctor call the pharmacy and confirm her codeine allergy before they would fill the prescription for Vicodin. By this time, it was after 5PM and her doctor was out of the office, and she didn’t have any emergency numbers to call, so she just took aspirin last night and dealt with the pain.

So my question is–is this normal? I know Vicodin is tightly controlled because of the possibility of people selling their pills, but can’t codeine also be sold in this manner? And isn’t that why a prescription is required in the first place? Why would a doc prescribe it if she didn’t expect it to be filled by the patient?

The whole incident just ticks me off–something doesn’t seem right here.

News flash–condoms do help prevent HPV

Especially in religious circles, much has been made about the “uselessness” of condoms for the prevention of infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV). This is the virus that is responsible for almost all cases of cervical cancer, against which a new vaccine was recently approved (for more background, see this post). Approximately 20 million Americans are currently infected with HPV, and over their lifetime, about half of sexually active adults will be infected at one point. Though most strains of the virus are harmless, a small portion of them cause cervical cancer in women, a disease that affects over 10,000 women every year (with a ~40% mortality rate).

These numbers, and the previous uncertainty about the level of protection condoms provide against HPV infection, has led to wild claims and fear-mongering by some. For example, an article by the Family Research Council (“Defending faith, family, and freedom”) states the following (after extensive quote-mining) regarding condoms and HPV:
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While I’m out…

One of the things that faculty get to do is go to lots and lots and lots of meetings. Today I’m at a 6-hour retreat focused on distance learning, PubMed, and data repositories. (I know, you’re all seething with jealousy). I hope to have another post up later this afternoon if I can get to it; in the meanwhile, here are a few notable posts from elsewhere:
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Lepidoptera blogging, Part 2

I mentioned we were out camping over the weekend in central Iowa. After our first close encounter, I figured we might as well make a weekend out of it, so Sunday we headed to the Reiman Gardens at Iowa State University (and specifically, the Christine Reiman butterfly wing):

The new 2,500-square-foot indoor Christina Reiman Butterfly Wing is the “jewel” of the Gardens. Designed to look like a butterfly in flight, it is a year-round tropical garden filled with exotic and native butterflies from six continents.

I have tons of pictures, so I’ll break them up into a few posts, starting below.
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Pneumonic plague outbreak

I blogged a few months ago about a case of plague (due to the bacterium, Yersinia pestis) in a woman in California. I’m still doing some reading for the promised post on Black Death, CCR5, and other topics discussed in the comments section, but in the meantime, I wanted to alert y’all to an ongoing outbreak of the disease (in the pneumonic form, meaning the bacteria is present in the lungs and therefore is person-to-person transmissible) in the Democratic Republic of Congo:
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More good news for global health

This is all of 24 hours old, so I know it’s already ancient history in the blogosphere, but I did want to mention the news of Warren Buffet’s ~$37 billion donation to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (As Stephen Colbert put it, Buffet’s so rich that he’s hired Bill Gates to spend his money.)

This means additional funding for research into and prevention of diseases such as TB, malaria, and guinea worm, in addition to increased education funding here in the US. And, this donation is in addition to the amount he already invests in his own foundation, the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation (recently renamed in memory of his wife), which promotes women’s health. ’tis a good day for global health, indeed.