“Fresh Hope in the Antibiotics Arms Race”

The future is dirt. A research team at Rockefeller University has found a potential new class of antibiotics in soil, named malacidins, that can effectively fight superbugs. Antibiotic resistance is a growing threat to the world. According to the CDC, in the U.S. alone 2 million people become infected with antibiotic resistant bacteria and over 3,000 people die each year as a result.  WIRED does a good job of describing the potentially very real grim future:

We’re rewinding to a world where death begins in childbirth, where premature babies die, where newborns go blind from gonorrhea. Routine injuries become life-threatening infections. You could lose a limb, or your life, from a careless slip with a paring knife or an accidental fall in India. The risks of organ transplants and medical implants would outweigh any potential benefit. Go in for routine dental surgery and end up in a body bag.

Too dark? The WHO has a very cute 1 minute video explaining the basics of antibiotic resistance with giant cartoon superbugs. Scientists have been on a race against time to find new antibiotics.

The research team, led by Dr. Sean Brady, tested the compounds on a rat infected with MRSA, and were able to eliminate the infection. However, Dr. Brady says, “It is a long, arduous road from the initial discovery of an antibiotic to a clinically used entity.” But he is optimistic about the future of antibiotics, and says, “Our idea is, there’s this reservoir of antibiotics out in the environment we haven’t accessed yet.”



Measles on the Loose in New York City

Health officials in New York are making sure people are aware that an Australian tourist with measles visited multiple hotels and the Metropolitan Museum of Art earlier this month. Measles is incredibly contagious and is spread through the air via coughing and sneezing. According to the CDC, the virus can survive in the air for up to two hours. Symptoms usually begin 7 to 14 days after exposure and may include high fever and cough, followed by a rash. Measles may cause serious complications, like pneumonia and encephalitis, which are more likely to lead to death in young children. The vaccine’s effectiveness rate is around 90%.

In the United States and elsewhere, lower vaccine rates have been associated with the anti-vaccine movement, led by people who mistakenly believe vaccines cause autism. I have no doubt the government is out to get us, and I am all for conspiracy theories, but that’s not what is happening here. The Washington Post notes:

Despite global efforts to combat the disease, measles has remained a serious threat, mostly to children in the developing world. In 2016, there were 89,780 measles deaths worldwide, the first year the figure dipped below six figures, the World Health Organization said

The disease has sometimes roared back in the United States in incidents tied to anti-vaxxer efforts. For instance, MMR vaccines in Somali communities in Minnesota dropped 50 percentage points from 2004 to 2014 because of activist work there, sparking the worst measles outbreak in the state in three decades.

Ebola’s Friend: Lassa Fever

A large outbreak of Lassa fever in Nigeria has people worried. The area is observing an unusually high number of cases this year. As of February 18, there have been 913 cases and 73 deaths, compared to 733 cases and 71 deaths in all of 2017.

Like Ebola, Lassa fever is a hemorrhagic fever, though considered less serious than Ebola. According the WHO, Lassa fever usually starts with a fever and progresses to a headache, muscle pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. In severe cases there may fluid in the lungs, and bleeding from the mouth, nose or other areas. In the most advanced stage of the disease shock, seizures, and coma may occur. In fatal cases, death usually occurs within 14 days of the onset. The drug Ribavirin, given via IV, is considered an effective treatment for Lassa fever if given within 6 days of the onset of symptoms.

What’s causing such a large outbreak? According to Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, director of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, a couple things may be at play: Improved detection, and that Nigeria’s growing population has brought people closer to the disease host: the infamous rat.

According to NPR:

“West Africa’s dry winters push rodents closer to people to scavenge for food. Virus-carrying rats may defecate or urinate in grains and other food; people can pick up the virus from contact with contaminated products. The virus can also spread between people via bodily fluids. And there are a lot of rats – which means there’s a lot of potential for outbreaks.”

The WHO is scaling up its response to the outbreak, and heath officials are urging people to keep food in sealed containers, as well as limit the proximity of garbage to homes.


Return of the Eye Worms

At this point, I don’t think anyone really wants to read any more about worms in people’s eyes, but here we are. A Florida man had eye surgery to remove a “brain-eating parasitic worm that was living in his eye.”

The parasitic worm, Taenia solium, swam through the man’s bloodstream from his stomach to his eye, likely caused by under-cooked pork the man ate around Christmas. Months later he started seeing black dots, a sign the worm had moved into his eye. The doctor that treated him is quoted as saying:

“If the parasite dies the inflammation could blind Cordero, if it lays some of its 50000 eggs they could travel to his brain and begin eating it turning it basically into swiss cheese. Thankfully that didn’t happen.”

Is it comforting to know this kind of thing is relatively rare in the United States? According to the CDC, “the number of new cases in the U.S. each year is probably less than 1000.” And “eye infections with pork tapeworms are rare: Only about 20 such cases have been reported worldwide.” Also, properly cooking meat to an internal temperature between 145° F for pork and 165° F for chicken kills the parasite.

Beware the Flu, Part Five

According the most recent CDC update, the total number of pediatric flu deaths stands at 84. Just before that, the CDC confirmed that only 26% of kids who died from the flu received flu shots. Though the flu vaccine this year was found to be only 36% effective for the entire population, it’s effectiveness rose to 59% among children between the ages of six months and eight years. Hearing that the flu vaccine was so generally ineffective this year may have influenced some parents to not get shots for their children. In fact, promoting the nearly 60% effective statistic could have encouraged many more children to be vaccinated. Still, the prevailing headlines all focus on the “only 36%” effective statistic.  And according to TIME,

36% effectiveness may not seem very impressive, but the CDC emphasizes in the report that even small increases in immunity can have a large impact on public health. CDC data has shown that even in 2014-2015, a year when vaccine effectiveness didn’t even hit 20%, immunizations prevented as many as 144,000 flu-related hospitalizations and 4,000 deaths. Plus, people who get the shot, but who still end up getting sick, tend to have less severe illnesses than unvaccinated people.

It’s not clear if flu season has hits its peak yet, and could continue through March. This seems likely to me, based entirely on the number of people I see not washing their hands after using the bathroom.


Beware the Flu
Beware the Flu, Part Two
Beware the Flu, Part Three
Beware the Flu, Part Four