Science bloggers storm Toronto!

As I mentioned, last night I took a break and went out for dinner and conversation with a wonderful group of science bloggers. Larry Moran of Sandwalk (not pictured) was good enough to arrange it all, and we met up in his office (home of the Talk.Origins server). Joining us were (left to right) Mona of ScienceNotes; Jonathan Badger of T. Taxus, who works at TIGR the J. Craig Venter Institute; Andrew of Mixotrophy (which, OK, is just a placeholder for now, but he’s a reader and commenter on many blogs); fellow University of Iowan John Logsdon, Eva of Eastern Blot (not pictured) and Chris Condayan of ASM’s MicrobeWorld (also not pictured, as he was off interviewing Eva).

You can find more photos by clicking the links above (including one at Larry’s with Eva and Chris; meanwhile, Larry is pictured in pics over at Mona’s and Jonathan’s). Finally, Chris interviewed all of us for an upcoming videocast from MicrobeWorld, so I’ll let y’all know when that’s up*…

*Depending on the results and how totally idiotic I sound, that is…there’s a reason why I stick to print media……

Latest carnivals

This week’s Grand Rounds is a real treat. Rather than just being a “best of” writing for the recent week, contributors were asked to dig through the archives and send in the posts that best defined their blog, a sample of their best writing (in their own opinion, of course). Check out the results here at Impacted Nurse.

A new Tangled Bank is also up today. You can find it at Geek Counterpoint.

Just got back from dinner with a bunch of sciencebloggers and other sciencey folks; more on that tomorrow!

Environmental change and infectious disease

Everyone knows about the “butterfly effect”: the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil could eventually result in the formation of a tornado in Texas by virtue of very small alterations in the initial conditions of a system. Though this description of it is often decried by people who study chaos theory as an inaccurate oversimplification, it’s a useful illustration of the tiny perturbations that can have vast effects on a downstream chain of reactions.

When it comes to infectious diseases, climate change may be the beginning, but environmental effects extend much farther than just the weather. And while they may not be affected by the movement of a butterfly, even small environmental changes can mean large effects when it comes to microbiology. At a session Tuesday on Environmental Change and Disease, virologist Stephen Morse noted that “…environmental changes have always been associated with the appearance of new diseases, or the arrival of old diseases in new places. With more changes, we can expect more surprises.” I’ve mentioned this previously here, describing reasons why diseases “emerge”; the session today went much further, discussing infectious disease in terms of ecology, and how environmental changes have the capacity to alter much more than just our landscapes. More after the jump.

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Touchdown in Toronto

Well, I made it here for the American Society for Microbiology general meeting. In Canada. So far, I had the people at my hotel completely screw up where the airport shuttle left from, leaving me waiting at the airport for an hour and a half, screwing up my reservation by almost shorting me a night, then having no internet access in my room (not just that I’d have to pay; but no possibility of getting it because my floor isn’t even wired, and my roomate–whom I’ve not even met yet–is already settled in). So I’m here in this little tiny corner lounge where there’s a wireless signal, right by the door with a cold breeze whenever someone walks in.

Oh, and our bus driver got lost on the way back from tonight’s reception and wasted an hour of my time. *And*, it’s Victoria Day and stuff closed early, or something. Toronto, you suck today. But there’s supposed to be fabulous weather the rest of the week, and there are more interesting sessions and posters than I can ever hope to catch, and I did at least make it to E.O. Wilson’s entertaining talk, so Monday will shortly be ancient history and hopefully tomorrow will be much better….

Emerging Disease and Zoonoses #27: Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever

I had a strange worry as a kid. I was very scared of getting bit by a tick and developing Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF). I know, weird–even for nerdy kids like me, who knows about Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever? How many readers are even familiar with it?

For those who aren’t, RMSF is a zoonotic rickettsial disease transmitted by several species of ticks. Though the disease is named after the geographical region where it was first described back in the late 1800s, the bacterium that causes it, Rickettsia rickettsii (an obligate intracellular pathogen), has been found in almost all US states and south to Mexico. The bacterium itself is related to Rickettsia prowazekii, the causative agent of louse-borne typhus, and RMSF is the most common rickettsial disease in the United States. Symptoms are non-specific initially (fever, muscle aches, nausea, vomiting, headache), making it difficult to diagnose. A rash starts to develop in most patients around 2-5 days after the fever presents, starting out faint and pinkish and typically getting redder and more “spotted” (hence the name) over time. More insidious, perhaps, are the cases where a rash doesn’t develop (“spotless fever,” ~10% of patients). Here, the physician may not have a reason to suspect RMSF, and therefore may not treat correctly.

Especially when untreated or treated late, infection can be severe, affecting the respiratory, central nervous, gastrointestinal, or renal systems. Those who have the worse infections also are more likely to suffer long-term damage, including hearing loss, loss of or reduction in bowel control, and paralysis, among others.

So how does a kid even learn about RMSF, a relatively rare disease (250-1200 cases reported annually according to the CDC), and why am I discussing it today? More below…
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Latest edition of Pediatric Grand Rounds

…check it out over at Ami Chopine–thanks to Shinga for sending along my entry on a little boy’s brush with death following his father’s smallpox vaccination. Lots of excellent posts collected over there; check em out.

However, what may be the most notable, well, note, is that Dr. Flea has flown the coop. There are a collection of posts on the situation at the beginning of this week’s PGR; I’ll just join others in hoping that once his legal issues have blown over, Dr. Flea will be back–he is missed.

Lincoln’s smallpox?

I think it must be difficult to study infectious disease without having some kind of interest in history. The field is so rich in stories from decades and centuries past, and infectious disease has played an enormous role in shaping our societies today. As with many fields, I believe our understanding of the present can be improved if we view it through the lens of the past–realizing as much as we can the historical influences and legacies that have brought us to where we are today.

I mentioned a few weeks back that, despite its eradication in the natural world, the smallpox virus still casts a long shadow, influencing military policy in this age of fears about biowarfare. It’s an understandable fear. Untreated smallpox can has a mortality rate in the range of 30%, and as routine vaccination ceased decades ago, many of us are completely susceptible to infection by the virus. If it were to be unleashed today, the results certainly could be devastating if not caught very early.

Of course, although smallpox isn’t a scourge any longer, it was quite a different story in 19th century America. Though vaccination using cowpox virus had been introduced and served to protect many people, there were significant problems with the process. For one, other blood-borne diseases could be transfered in the process, since infectious material was often transferred from person to person. Sometimes the vaccine didn’t take, and the recipient contracted smallpox anyway, or was sickened from the cowpox. Maintaining the vaccine strain was also difficult. Infectious material could be transferred over distances, but it didn’t always remain infectious upon receipt. Alternatively, one could go straight to the source and look for an outbreak of vaccinia in cows, but this was unpredictable and, as one can imagine, inconvenient. Additionally, despite much success with vaccination, many objected to the delivery of material derived from cows into humans, and antivaccination posters at the time depicted cattle-human hybrids resulting from inoculation with cowpox. Therefore, while vaccination against smallpox was popular and somewhat common in a few areas and social circles, it certainly wasn’t universal yet in the mid-1800s.

Smallpox has altered the course of history in innumerable ways. The destruction of the native American population by smallpox and measles has been written about extensively, and the disease also struck world leaders and members of royal families. It also appears to have nearly made Abraham Lincoln miss his famous Gettysburg Address. Lincoln’s smallpox is addressed in a new manuscript in the Journal of Medical Biography; more below.
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Where I am again marginalized

So, Dave over at The World’s Fair has started a coffee mug meme, suggesting that “…it’s almost like it s an emblem of your character. As if the type of cup you use can offer insight into the sort of personality you are.

Or maybe not…”

He asks then:

1. Can you show us your coffee mug?
2. Can you comment on it? Do you think it reflects on your personality?
3. Do you have any interesting anecdotes resulting from coffee cup commentary?
3. Can you try to get others to comment on it?

1). I’d love to, but the problem is…
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