Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Dedicated Travelers

Its summer, the weather is warm, and everyone I know is taking off for a vacation or two (including myself! but I'll get to that later). Well, everyone except for the teenagers and little children that are practically living in the pool that's located right across the way from my windows. No, they aren't going anywhere. In fact, they are letting the whole neighborhood know that they wont be leaving by playing marco-polo what seems like 24 hours a day! I'm getting so used to hearing blood-curdling screams and shrieks coming from outside that if someone was actually being murdered, I might accidentally mistake it for children in the pool and take no action. Someone should tell those children that they are the reason people are dying. That, and that they should shut up.

I digress.

I'm always trying to find topics for this blog that are relevant to my life or current events. Not only does it make it easier for me to choose, but maybe it'll also give you a little insight to what my life is like as well... not that that is the reason you're reading this or anything. Even though science is one of the most egotistical communities, science is about the subjects itself, not the scientists themselves.

(As I typed that sentence, I had a brief flashback to my physics course in college. The very ancient professor was absolutely obsessed with Einstein, and spent most of the class telling us about him as a person, instead of his works. That professor died a few weeks after the quarter ended. I don't believe in anything having to do with religion, but I hope Dr. Good (or his atomic makeup) is somewhere in the universe, hanging out with Einstein, just how he always wanted.)

So, the relevance of this topic is a bit obscure, but hey, that's what science is all about! A new friend of mine leaves for a never-ending backpacking trip, beginning in Iceland, tomorrow. A very close friend of mine leaves for Hawaii tomorrow, and later in the summer is packing up and moving to Sweden. One of my cutest friends will be studying abroad in Germany soon. Some of my friends are on a two month tour through Europe with their band, Comadre. And I, lastly, leave for my short vacation to Australia in less than two weeks. After all this year has thrown at me, the ups and downs, I simply cannot wait to...well..get out. It's winter in Australia right now, and I cannot be more excited about that. That, and well, anything.

With all the stories of traveling, I've decided to dedicate this entry to all my friends and their future explorations by writing about infestations.


I've been receiving periodic updates from my friends that are currently gallivanting around the world, all while I select and book my accommodations, and a thought came to mind. Hotels, hostels, buses, random sheets, unwashed clothing and close quarters. Do we know what we're rolling around on? Or rather, what could be crawling around on, embedding itself in, and defecating all over us? Let me tell you about two of my favorites.

Bed Bugs

Bed bugs are found practically worldwide. There are so many different subfamilies within the genus that they are easily spread regionally. Bed bugs are parasitic, nocturnal and hematophagus, meaning they feed on blood, typically of warm-blooded animals. In collecting their blood meal, they use two separate feeding tubes; one to inject saliva containing anticoagulants and anesthetics, and the other to collect the host's blood.  Is it just me, or do they sound like tiny vampires? 

Bed bugs are also very homophobic. They fertilize females through very violent copulation, essentially piercing the female with its genitalia. Since this is, what I assume to be, a very painful process, the males go to great lengths to avoid any sexual confusion, and secrete an "alarm pheromone" that is used to signal other males in case one accidentally tries to sexually assault another male. 

Bed bugs can, and do, feed on humans. After feeding, the site of the bite becomes inflamed, due to action of the inflammatory response to try to heal the wound and avoid infection. The bites can become very itchy, and the wounds are typically torn open through scratching, increasing the probability of secondary infection. Bed bugs infest entire households, and are fond of fabrics, such as bed sheets, upholstered furniture and dark places. 

A cuddle puddle of Bed Bugs

Scabies, or Sarcoptes Itch Mites, are very tricky little parasites. Scabies mites cause intense itching for many reasons. Initial infestation begins when an impregnated female burrows into the host's skin and lays eggs. The actual burrowing and movement under the skin can cause itching, even though the mites are rarely seen due to their size. Burrows can often be seen on the surface of the skin:

Infestation is usually located in folds or crevices of skin, such as in between fingers, on the underside of the wrist, underarms, under the fold of the breast and butt. Scabies is also classified as a common sexually transmitted disease because it can infest genital areas and can be passed through sexual contact. 
Once the female has laid her eggs, they hatch 3-5 days later, and the infestation spreads to other areas of the host's body. The collection of eggs under the skin can cause itching, too, as well as the direct contact with the mite's fecal matter, as most individuals are allergic to it. Much like Bed Bugs, Scabies burrows are very itchy and cause an inflammatory response from the host. The host often tears the wound open through intense scratching, and a secondary infection can occur. 

Scabies is spread through direct skin contact with an infested person, sharing bedding. Initial symptoms of severe itching, primarily at night, will usually occur two weeks to a month after contact with the infested person or bedding. Scabies mites spread very easily and rapidly, which means all individuals in a household or shared living space must be treated at the same time. This will eliminate risk of reinfestation. 

Scabies mites burrowing in skin

I've decided to stop there since its very easy to get carried away with ectoparasites, and I don't want to completely freak my friends out and ruin their trips. The next time you are planning a trip somewhere, sharing a bed with someone, or sitting on your not-so-hygienic friend's couch, think about the fun things that can infest your skin.

On a side note, one of the places I'll be traveling to has a sea monster! Looks like I'll be spending my entire vacation doing research and waiting to see this 30 foot thing! Exciting!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Febrile Summer

I have a confession to make.

Not only am I a horrible blogger (shh, I know!), but...well...

I'm obsessed with Ebola.
Now, let me back up a few steps and tell you why:

Infectious diseases are my "thing". They've always fascinated me, in the ways that they affect their hosts, in their genius, evolutionary design, and in their strength. When I first learned about Ebola, I was in the Stanford morgue with my biology teacher. I was a freshman in high school, and was the only person in my class that could handle the trip. My teacher didn't doubt that, either. Not only was I the only freshman in the class, but I was getting the highest grade. She might have also thought I would have been interested in going since I was a suburban punk with an open fascination for all things morbid and macabre.

My future in science was sprawled out in front of me, sliced open exposing the internal environment of what you could associate that feeling after you accidentally sleep with your mouth open all night: pooling liquids, stressed tissues and an attractive browning in color. These are all minor details in this story, but I'm sure you can forgive me for indulging in such memories.

During the first autopsy review, I asked what the most interesting cause of death was that they had seen to date. Obviously, no one had died from Ebola in suburban-chic Palo Alto, but a laundry list of infectious diseases was recited.

Fast forward to many years later. Not so much outwardly punk rock anymore (forever at heart, though!), I sit in my Virology class in college, amorously listening to lectures about some of the world's deadliest things. Sure, I knew about Ebola by then, through scientific papers and trashy dramatizations of science, but it was only after those lectures that I truly knew I was obsessed.

Since then, my candid crush on Ebola has ruined a number of dates, relationships and any hope that I had (actually never) had to be considered somewhat normal. So what if I am fascinated with something that has killed tons of people!?

Yea, ok. I get it. I probably should not be on the internet, professing my lust and admiration for a virus. But I did. Lets get to the point, shall we?

Ebola, classified as filoviridae, is a really brutal virus that has been in the news a lot lately. Known to cause hemorrhagic fevers and be extremely pathogenic and fatal, Ebola still has a lot of unknowns associated with it. Although the mode of transmission is thought to be through direct contact with fluids or tissues from an infected person or animal, virologists are still not completely sure. The only way to prevent a massive outbreak is to isolate all infected individuals. Scientists are not even sure what the vector could be, although many have researched various bat species that reside in areas surrounding previous outbreaks.

When you have Ebola, the endothelial cells of blood vessles, mainly surrounding orifices, weaken and lose the ability to cause coagulation, which is part of the healing process. Eventually, these tissues break down completely, causing bleeding from any (or all) of your orifices. Another website describes the symptoms in gruesome detail, as if reading the liner notes for a black metal album:

"The first symptoms are a low-grade headache. This quickly progresses to a debilitating fever and muscle pain. Then things get truly bad as the major organs, the digestive tract, the skin, the eyes, the gums, all begin to break down and bleed. The body begins to dissolve. Blood pours out of body orifices while the victim writhes in pain. Death usually comes from systemic shock and blood loss. Researchers were shocked when they first autopsied people who died from these fevers. Their insides had literally melted into a necrotic mess of black fluid."

About a year ago, a research scientist in Germany earned international attention because she carelessly stabbed her finger while injecting mice with the Ebola virus for treatment and vaccination experimentation. Luckily, her team immediately went into action, isolated her and treated her with a vaccine that was still in the process of being developed.

Rumor has it that she is alive and well. Oh goody!

Three weeks ago, Ebola made international headlines again when scientists in Boston published research showing an effective cure for Simian (monkey)  Ebola. Their research achieved 100% protection against death after the monkeys were injected with a seriously lethal dose of the virus. This has nothing to do with infected humans, but will lead the way for future research and vaccine development.

I am always fascinated at how tirelessly research scientists work to solve major problems, such as viruses with 90% mortality rates, cancer or Alzheimer's...yet, there is always some idiot that is working to keep the problem going, despite any efforts to fix it.

A perfect example of this is the bushmeat industry. Just today, reporters uncovered a serious threat to the spread of many deadly viruses in Paris due to the weekly importation of bushmeat from monkeys, crocodiles and porcupines. My favorite part of that article is this:

"Madame Toukine, an African woman in her 50s, said she receives special deliveries of crocodile and other bushmeat on weekends. She declined to give her full name, fearing she could be arrested."

Oh yes. I know I engage in potentially deadly trade that is incredibly illegal, but I'll give you my last name and the location of my quaint little bushmeat-slinging shoppe.
Also, this:

"Of 134 people searched, 9 had bushmeat. Another 83 had livestock or fish. But people with bushmeat had the largest amounts: one passenger had 51 kilograms (112 pounds) of it — and no other luggage. Most of the bushmeat was smoked and arrived as dried-out carcasses. Some animals were identifiable, though scientists boiled the remains of others and reassembled the skeletons to determine the species."

Mmm! Nothing gets my salivary glands excited like unidentifiable jungle carcass!

Also, if you have the time, check out this amazing revamping of a classic: Curious George and the Ebola Virus.