Whereby Jon Wells is smacked down by an undergrad in the Yale Daily News

I suppose everyone has someone who they consider an embarrassment to their alma mater. I can probably think of a dozen just off the top of my head regarding my undergraduate institution (including a number of politicians who shall remain nameless). However, one who really sticks in my craw is the infamous Jonathan Wells of the Discovery Institute, who also happens to be a Yale alum (Divinity school–small comfort that it wasn’t Yale College, at least).

So, Wells has been back polluting Yale lately, via the Opinion pages of the student newspaper, the Yale Daily News. Predictably, Wells mischaracterizes evolution, but he also uses his “authority” as a theologian to rail against the upcoming Evolution Sunday sermons, following a previous editorial by Jonathan Dudley describing Evolution Sunday as “not entirely benign.” Dudley is a student at the Divinity school where Wells received his degree, and according to the YDN, is also a molecular oncology researcher at the Yale School of Medicine–so he dislikes the perceived conflict between science and religion. As such, he’s in favor of events like Evolution Sunday that seek to counter this idea, but he’s worried that one argument from authority is being traded for another:
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Influenza virologist Robert Webster stops by to talk shop

Readers who are regulars at Effect Measure or Deltoid will be familiar with the opinions of attorney and author Michael Fumento. Fumento considers himself an avian flu “skeptic,” and recently issued a “challenge” (the title, “My avian flu challenge to the leftist bird-brained squawkers”, might give you some clue as to its scientific value) to bloggers, in response to one blogger’s comment that “… there was a “50%/50%” chance of [an influenza] pandemic in the next year”:

I took advantage of Mr. Paramedic’s oversight to bet him 10-1, with him picking the dollar amount, that there would be no such pandemic in the next 365 days. Odds of 2-1 would be even, so this is an offer you’d think he’d snap up. So far no reply. Now I’m extending the challenge to all bloggers who’ve ignored my flawless track record on disease scares dating back 20 years and who have said in no uncertain terms that I’ve been grossly irresponsible and a total idiot on the subject of pandemic flu.

…Okay guys, put your bucks where your blogs are! Ten to one odds for each of you; each gets to pick the amount in question. I say the year 2008 will roll around and there will be plenty of terrible problems in the world, but pandemic avian flu won’t be among them.

Revere, Mike, Tim, and Revere especially have already ripped much of Fumento’s argument apart, so I’m not going to focus on that.* Rather, what people like Fumento do is almost a form of quote-mining. In Fumento’s case, he takes the worst case scenario that influenza virologists and epidemiologists have noted–that is, a highly deadly pandemic occurring at any moment–and suggesting that’s the consensus opinion, and that anyone who voices any concern about pandemic influenza is a “chicken little.”

One target of this ire has been virologist Robert Webster of St. Jude’s (photo to the left). He recently visited us here in Iowa, and his message was much more tempered than what’s been reported in the media. More after the jump.
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The dish that changed the world

Speaking of microbiology basics, along comes an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune about the petri dish, a staple of microbiology labs everywhere:

Before 1877, scientists exploring the nature and mechanics of microscopic life had a real problem. Bacteria used for study were typically cultured or grown in bottles or bowls of broth. Koch greatly improved the situation by developing ways to grow microbes in gel, which allowed researchers to separate and investigate individual types of bacteria.

But practical problems remained. It was hard to manipulate bacterial colonies through the small openings of bottles. Worse, there was the issue of contamination. Nothing stayed sterile, pure.

Enter Petri, whose lasting and eponymous contribution to science was the invention of a shallow, cylindrical glass dish with a transparent lid.

More below the fold…
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The Basics: Introduction to Microbiology and Infectious Disease

Like most fields, microbiology is one filled with jargon. Many laymen don’t even realize the differences between a bacterium and a virus, much less the smaller differences between, for example, a pathogenic versus a commensal organism. So, while I haven’t decided yet exactly what I might write about in future posts, I thought I’d begin with a very general microbiology primer to get everyone up to speed on the basics of the microbial word.

To begin with, in the “well, duh” category, microbiology is the study of very tiny life. Initially, those studied were mainly disease-causing organisms; pioneers such as Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur studied bacteria including anthrax and tuberculosis, developing the germ theory of disease and laying down postulates to decide whether a particular microbe is truly the cause of a specific illness along the way. And though this is obviously my focus as an infectious disease epidemiologist–looking mainly at microbes that cause disease (or at least have the potential to do so)–in one of the comments, it was noted that microbiology is about much more than just disease-causing organisms. I agree with that, and I’ll try to do something on microbial ecology (though potentially with some kind of human disease angle thrown in there) in the future.

Generally today, the all-encompassing group of “microbes” are divided into viruses, bacteria, fungi, and protozoans. I will discuss each category briefly, and touch on prion diseases as well, finishing up with a brief introduction to our body’s disease-control mechanism, the immune system. Please do keep in mind that the statements below are gross generalizations; exceptions exist to many of the basic guidelines put forth below. So to begin this veritable stew of information:
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Measles deaths decrease again

Measles deaths down 60 percent in six years

Though we tend to think of measles as a mere childhood disease here in the U.S.–a nuisance more than anything–this is a reminder that worldwide, it’s still a significant cause of morbidity and mortality. To counter this, a mass vaccine campaign was begun in 2001, and has served to drastically reduce the burden due to the disease:

Deaths from measles have fallen by 60 percent worldwide since 1999 in what experts described on Friday as an historic victory for global health.

Accelerated control measures including an increase in routine measles immunizations and a campaign to reach marginalized children in the 45 worst hit countries has pushed deaths down from an estimated 873,000 in 1999 to around 345,000 in 2005.

More after the jump…
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“Around here we call it Iraqibacter”

I’ve previously mentioned a bacterial pathogen called Acinetobacter baumannii (a bit more information here), and Mike has discussed it rather frequently. A. baumannii is ordinarilly a commensal bacterium–one that may live on the skin of healthy people for many years without ever causing disease. It becomes a problem when one is immunocompromised in some manner, and unable to keep growth of the bacterium in check. Once this happens, it’s difficult to reverse, as the bacterium brings new meaning to the term “antibiotic resistant.” As Mike blogged previously, a genomic analysis revealed that the bacterium has 52 resistance genes–it’s no wonder it shrugs off everything doctors throw at it. And now, it seems that we’re importing additonal cases of A. baumannii infections from Iraq, which are entering the country as soldiers are transported from hospital to hospital along the evacuation chain. More below the fold.
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Angola still suffering from cholera outbreak

As I described previously in this post, war and disease are inextricably intertwined:

War and its concomitant devastation and social upheaval leaves its victims at an increased risk of disease transmission to begin with due to poor sanitation, collapse of public health and medical facilities and support personnel, crowding in refugee camps, breaks in supply chains of food, medicine, and other necessary items, malnutrition and depression, and other factors.

This social upheaval frequently lasts much longer than the actual fighting. Additionally, in some cases where areas have been destabilized from decades of conflict, any semblance of public health infrastucture is long gone, worsening the severity and duration of outbreaks of infectious disease.

Such is the case currently in Angola. I’d singled out this country previously as a war-torn area, with respect to an outbreak of Marburg virus:

Following independence from Portugal, Angola has suffered through 30 years of civil war. Estimates suggest that 1.5 million have been killed, and up to 4 million displaced during this time, and the population has been generally left in poor health with any public health infrastructure decimated.

The country is bereft of doctors, and the conditions make it difficult for international agencies to work there. This kept the 2005 Marburg epidemic, which killed 227 people, off the international radar for at least 6 months after it began, and it’s also played a role in fueling the ongoing cholera outbreak there. More after the jump.
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