Sunday, January 25, 2015

A two'fer

January: the peak of flu season, the aftermath of the holidays, and my birthday month. To celebrate all of those things, you get a two'fer today. Two subjects, one post.

Before I dive in to my two topics for today, I wanted to remind you that the Ebola outbreak is, unfortunately, still going strong. Just because the news no longer finds it new, doesn't mean it's over. Just because someone made "Ebola patient" Halloween costumes and oh, Halloween was so long ago, doesn't mean it's over (also, you should be ashamed of yourself if you donned that, or any version of that costume). As of yesterday, the outbreak has killed more than 8,600 people. I encourage you to stay informed via the Ebola Map.

Anyway...back to our regularly scheduled program:


In 1757, a Scottish physician by the name of Francis Home proved that ___________ was caused by an infectious agent in the blood of afflicted patients.

In 1912, __________ became a "nationally notifiable" disease in the US, meaning that all health care workers were required to report all cases, as approximately 6,000 deaths were caused by _________ per year.

In the 1950s, nearly all children got __________ by the time they were fifteen years of age, causing scientists and the federal government scrambling to find a solution. In 1963, a vaccine was finally available. Thanks to the development and approval of the vaccine, the US government aimed to eradicate _________  by 1982. While this didn't completely happen, cases were decreased by 80% from 1980 to 1981.

In 2000, _________ was declared eliminated in the US.

Have you figured it out yet? Better yet, have you caught it, yet? (haha I'm so funny)

Still stumped? Here's one last hint:

Photo courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
It's Measles! The famous Morbillivirus is back in a big way, and is running rampant at one of the happiest places on earth. Measles (or Rubeola) is a highly contagious negative-sense single strand RNA virus of the paramyxoviridae family that is illustrated by symptoms in the respiratory tract, skin, and immune system. The obvious rash (seen above) is often accompanied by a hacking cough, Koplik's spots, red eyes, and high fever. Measles is an airborne virus and is dependent on aerosolization (coughing, sneezing) in order to spread properly. The virus can "live" in aerosolized droplets for up to two hours on a surface. Assuming there are no complications, measles usually runs its course in about 7 to 10 days (like a gross case of the flu).

So, why do we care? Why was the US government in a rush to eradicate such a disease?

Measles is really prominent in children, and children usually don't have an immune system that can withstand stubborn viruses with a history. A lot of children (actually one out of every 20 kids infected) end up developing pneumonia as a result of a measles infection, which is actually the leading cause of death from measles in young children. About one out of every 1,000 children that are exposed to measles can develop encephalitis, which can cause permanent brain damage due to excess swelling. Ear infections associated with measles (affecting 10% of infected kids) can result in permanent hearing loss.

It's estimated that over 16 million people visit Disneyland every year, with attendance fluctuations based on holidays and common school schedules (like summer break). That's almost 45,000 people PER DAY in a place were everyone is touching everything from handrails to harnesses, from interactive displays to the bric-a-brac in all of the shops.

In the latest measles outbreak, that officials are saying started at Disneyland, a handful of employees were also infected. I bet a lot of those employees were vaccinated as children, but since Disney hires people from around the world (I say this as a fact that I applaud because everyone should be able to live out their dream of working at Disneyland... and because I desperately want to be Maleficent), I bet a good chunk of their employees didn't grow up in areas that enforce strict vaccination requirements for school-aged kids. Vaccination requirements vary by state, by country, and some are better enforced than others. Plus, school-based vaccination requirements don't usually include home-schooled kids.

I'm not going to launch into some diatribe on how I feel about vaccinations (I'm sure you know already if you read my blog regularly), but I will say that the MMR vaccine (that's Measles, Mumps, and Rubella in a combination vaccine) has lead to a 99% reduction in infections, compared to the pre-vaccine era (prior to 1963). If you aren't sure about your vaccine history, I heavily encourage you to go get an Antibody Titer Test done. A titer will tell you what antibodies you have the ability to produce, whether from vaccines or direct exposure, and will tell you which ones your body isn't able to currently make, meaning you haven't been exposed, or you need an additional vaccination or booster. Not only could this simple test save your life, but it could also save the lives of others that may not be able to fight off diseases. If you're vaccinated, it's like saying "Hey disease! You'll have to get through me first before you can infect this baby, that old lady, or that person with a compromised immune system. OH WAIT, YOU CAN'T!"...and suddenly you're a hero.

I also want to remind you that its not just Disneyland, and its not just measles. Think about how many people you encounter every day, and how many people your family members encounter. Who knows what you've touched! I take the bus every day to work, and I can't tell if it's making my immune system stronger, or taking years off of my life.

Speaking of taking the bus, here's your second subject!!

I've been reading a lot since I've started taking the bus to work. I mean, reading for fun. This is the first time in probably 20 years that I've really had time to read for fun, to read for ME, and I love it. In fact, I've already finished my first book of the year, and while it wasn't science-related, there were some topics that really interested me.

The book I just recently finished (because I seriously couldn't put it down) was Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, which details the life of Louis Zamperini and his experiences during World War II. It is heartbreaking and amazing. I cried multiple times on the bus while reading this book (what, Zamperini reminded me a lot of my late grandfather, so it was extra emotional for me).

I won't spoil the book, but there are a number of chapters that talk about the life of American and Allied men that were caught and held as POWs in Japan. One of the most prominent health issues that was seen in these camps was beriberi. Beriberi is an illness that occurs as a result of severe thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency, without infectious agent, and presents in two ways: wet beriberi and dry beriberi.

Wet beriberi affects the cardiovascular system, causing shortness of breath, increased heart rate, and swelling of lower extremities. Dry beriberi, or Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, affects the nervous system, and can cause loss of feeling, paralysis, difficulty walking, mental confusion, strange eye movements, pain and vomiting. Both wet and dry beriberi can become severe very quickly, and can lead to permanent damage and death.

Thiamine deficiency is common in developing countries, especially regions with restricted access to food due to war, severe economic conditions, and environmental conditions that make it difficult to grow or access food. I bring this up because it's easy to read a book like Unbroken, and think about beriberi as an issue that only hurt POWs during WWII, because you stop hearing about it once you finish the book. I encourage you, as you read books or whatever you're looking a online, to do further research and teach yourself something new. LeVar Burton would be proud of you.