Cholera and a sort of book review

Cover of

Cover of The Ghost Map

One of my favorite books is “The Ghost Map” , written by Steven Johnson. It chronicles the beginning of modern epidemiology (science that studies the spread of disease in humans) by following two different men of a learning- a scientist named John Snow and Reverend Henry Whitehead- during the London cholera epidemic of 1854. By investigating the cases of cholera in the neighborhood they served, they discovered its transmission via water and Dr. Snow created epidemiological mapping that is still used (albeit on computer) to this day. The book is extremely well written and engaging, so definitely check it out. (This post is just an attempt to give a crash course on the topic cause IT’S SUPER COOL GUYS)

19th Century science and medicine can be a distant concept at best so I will  set the scene.  *a-HEM*

We did not always believe germs caused disease. For over a thousand years doctors and scientists held to Miasma theory. In Western medicine it is attributed to Galen,a hugely influential Greek physician, surgeon, and philosopher born in AD 129 ,and it states that illness comes from “bad air” called “miasmata” or “night air”. The ancient Chinese and Indian societies also had the same concepts even earlier than the Greeks.  All agreed that bad air’s source could be rotting organic matter, water containing waste of any kind, poor hygiene, and air pollution. Miasma made the individuals who inhaled it ill, and that individuals did not pass that illness on to other humans- only individuals who had direct contact with the bad air would fall ill. Western belief also held that bad air could come from the worms in ulcers of plague victims (I wish I were kidding).

270px-Cholera_art

poisonous air transmitting illness by Robert Seymour, 19th Century

[We now know that illness is caused by germs.  Some illnesses are airborne, waterborne or transmitted by plants/animals/insects, and that almost all can be transmitted from person to person by various pathways. We’ve come a long way.]

tl;dr: Scientists and doctors adhered to the logic “If I have a strong negative visceral reaction to this smell, and the smell is near those who are ill, then the smell must be making these individuals ill.” (which, incidentally, I think is an example of Cum Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc or the false cause fallacy) In the Ghost Map, Johnson hypothesizes that Miasma theory may have stuck around as long as it did because of our physiological and psychological relationship with our sense of smell. I would add that Miasma theory  dovetailed nicely into the social and cultural views (held by many then, and still held by some people now) that those of the lower class would naturally be more ill and dirty as punishment for their moral failings. Luckily for us, Dr. Snow was a Miasma Theory skeptic, and this skepticism was ultimately what allowed him to make his groundbreaking discovery. The other difficulty in connecting germs with illness was that no one knew microbes existed until Anton van Leeuwenhoek and Robert Hooke’s first spotted them under microscopes in the 17th Century.

Re-occurring Cholera pandemics first  began when the illness left the Indian subcontinent in 1817 (where the disease is thought to have originated and existed for thousands of years, the first written description is in Sanskrit from the 5th Century) spreading first to Russia, then Europe and the rest of the world.  The London Cholera Outbreak of 1854 was part of a larger  Cholera pandemic that lasted from 1839-1856. So by the time of Dr. Snow and the Reverend’s work, people were fairly familiar with the signs of Cholera, but no nearer to stopping it than they were in the previous pandemics.

Cholera is caused by a bacteria called Vibrio cholerae that lives in contaminated water (containing animal or human waste). Individuals become infected when they ingest contaminated water or if they ingest items that have come in contact with contaminated water such as shellfish or oysters. The symptoms of cholera are unique and dramatic-  rapid and severe diarrhea and vomiting until the illness has taken its course. Choleric diarrhea is described as “rice water” and individuals may develop blue tinged skin as they lose fluids. The very young and very old have higher susceptibility, and it has a 50% fatality rate if individuals are not kept hydrated. There are vaccines for cholera as well as a cure- antibiotics or constant water and electrolytes- but since citizens of the 1800s had neither the knowledge nor the science, cholera became a devastating plague. (Historians believe cholera killed Tchaikovsky, King Charles X of France, and U.S. President James K. Polk)

The troubling thing is that something as easily treated and nasty as Cholera is still prevalent in the 21st Century. After the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, the government and the U.N. were unable to secure the water supply which led to the death of 8,000 people.  Cholera will continue to kill 1,000 Haitians a year until it is eradicated from the country.  Just yesterday South Sudan declared an outbreak that has infected 171 and killed 81. “Cholera broke out in the capital last year, five months into a civil war that is still ongoing over a year later. That outbreak was devastating infecting more than 6,000 people across 16 counties and resulted in the deaths of 167.” (Al Jazeera English)

As of 2010, it has caused  58,000–130,000 deaths a year(1). The scary and difficult part of this disease is that some strains can cause death in 2 hours and it infects individuals that are already in sometimes war-torn,devastated, under-served and impoverished communities. 

What can be done? The consensus among the public health community is that prevention and preparedness on the part of governments is critical. Complete and thorough sanitation of drinking water that that is available to the entire population is essential. When or if there is a cholera outbreak, notifying the public, vaccinating and locating the source of the contamination is critical to slowing the spread. Continuing to aid countries in their improvement of  infrastructure and communication of public health departments and health care communities in the developing world will be crucial to wiping out Cholera for good.

Want to know more about cholera? Check out the links below

Report on Cholera in India from World Health Organization

Harvard- Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics

Cholera Fact Sheet World Health Organization

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton and the Haiti Cholera Outbreak

Basic Principles of Epidemiology

Sources

1. Lozano R, Naghavi M, Foreman K, Lim S, Shibuya K, Aboyans V, Abraham J, Adair T, Aggarwal R, Ahn SY et al. (December 15, 2012). “Global and regional mortality from 235 causes of death for 20 age groups in 1990 and 2010: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010”. Lancet 380 (9859): 2095–128. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(12)61728-0. PMID 23245604.

Chronic Condition: Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition defined by three or more months of full body musculoskeletal aches, fatigue and memory problems. Fatigue in effected individuals commonly results from sleep cycle disruption by generalized pain, restless leg syndrome and sleep apnea.  Memory problems specifically consist of problems with focus, attention, and concentration. Most individuals will also experience headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, painful menstrual periods, numbness or tingling of the extremities, sensitivity to light, sound and temperature. The symptoms may begin as a result of an acute injury or trauma, or simply build over time.

The cause of fibromyalgia is unknown. Recent studies suggest that the cause of the disorder may be the brain’s incorrect processing of signals being sent from the limbs and muscles, making certain sensations more painful than they would be to those who do not have fibromyalgia. NIAMS (National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases) supported researchers are currently investigating possible genetic dysfunction within the disorder and have already found genes that are more common in individuals with the condition.

Diagnosis of fibromyalgia is not consistent throughout the medical community and it may take those suffering from fibromyalgia multiple visits to several physicians before receiving a correct diagnosis. Some doctors are unfamiliar with the condition and some do not believe it exists but that it is a group of overlapping separate conditions. This disbelief has a basis- oftentimes it is hard to diagnose fibromyalgia as its symptoms overlap with multiple psychosomatic disorders.

Because of its unknown cause there is no cure for fibromyalgia.  Treatment must be multifaceted with different remedies for improving mood and sleep, and reducing pain.  There are three drugs that were approved by the FDA in treating fibromyalgia. One- Duloxetine is an  anti-depressants, another Milnacipran an anti-depressant mimic, is only for the treatment of fibromyalgia and the last drug, Pregabalin, treats the chronic pain caused by nervous system damage. Doctors also recommend over the counter and prescription painkillers but never narcotics as they may lead to psychological and physical addiction when used for long periods of time. Physical therapy and regular exercise also reduce the symptoms of fibromyalgia. Patients will often enroll in therapy to learn skills for coping with physical pain and to lessen the depression that often a reaction to prolonged physical illness.

sources:

Today in Cool Things I Found to Show My BIO 101 Students

This is the Rhizanthella gardneri! It is an orchid that lives entirely underground. It was first discovered in 1928 and its home is Western Australia.

220px-Rhizanthella_gardneri_—_Fred_Hort

It is one of the only known plants to exist entirely underground and it’s also critically endangered. Only 50 individual plants were left in the wild in 2011. It is a parasitic plant, which means it gets the majority of its nutrients from other plants. In 2010, scientists at the University of West Australia discovered gardneri gets its nutrients from fungi that live on the root of the broom bush, a woody Australian shrub.

light-reaction1

The most interesting aspect of these plants is that they still contain chloroplasts! Chloroplasts carry out photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the process of generating ATP using the sun’s rays, water and O2. Think of them as the plant cell’s version of mitochondria. In the picture above you can see an overview of the entire photosynthesis process. The gardneri orchid would not need to carry out the light dependent reactions on the left because…

orchid lives UNDER THE GROUND WHERE THERE’S NO SUN??

So of course scientists took a closer look at these unnecessary chloroplasts. Fun thing about chloroplasts,just like mitochondria, they have their own special DNA, unique to the chloroplast and different from the cell’s DNA in the nucleus. And it turns out that gardneri chloroplasts’ DNA are missing 70% of their DNA compared to equivalent chloroplasts in above ground plants. The plant has evolved so that only genes that are useful to being a parasitic plant are left. These genes create 4 different proteins. The nice thing is that scientists have always wanted to know what the other chloroplast genes that are not involved in photosynthesis actually *do* and now they have the perfect opportunity to do so. (It was too hard to accomplish this using every day plants that had the full set of chloroplast DNA.)

The researchers also think this discovery could help them to understand gene loss in other parasites.

I could see this being important because plant life on other planets may take this form.

Sources;

(Not really that) strange sex: starting an analysis

Lately  I have been watching TLC’s show “Strange Sex” (it’s on instant watch on Netflix and only 2 seasons long) and its given me a lot of food for thought. The wikipedia for the show sums it up, although it’s pretty vague. In each episode the show interviews and documents an individual who has a fetish or sexual preference that is outside of the mainstream or they highlight an individual that has a sexual/reproductive condition that is out of the ordinary. I want to write this post as a beginning to a series of posts that I am going to write, reviewing all the cases in each episode- analyzing the episodes through an intersectional feminist lens, a storytelling/good tv (relative to my taste) lens, a human biology lens, and through a LGBTQAP lens -which I am not able to speak from a place of authority but will research and cite as much as possible or refer to other people as authorities. Most of the time I will probably just note that I think that TLC’s handling of it seems suspect and heteronormative and leave the hard hitting stuff to someone who has more knowledge than me.

I am inspired by the book (that I have not read but love the concept of) Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV  written by Jennifer L. Pozner. (here’s a link to her article about ABC’s Shows The Bachelor and The Bachelorette) I am always watching reality TV like this (I have written about Bridezillas and Hoarding in other posts on this blog) and Strange Sex seems like the perfect intersection of all of my interests- Science, Feminism, reproductive health, sex positivity, LGBTQAP+ issues, and media messages in reality tv. I don’t know how cohesive the whole thing will be, but I’ll try to make it work! It will be a thought experiment, that’s for sure. (and always, criticism and feedback are super super helpful)

For one thing, what TLC classifies as strange in this case is actually more appropriately called “uncommon”, “rare” (in the case of medical conditions) or “not mainstream” or “taboo to pop culture” ( in the case of fetishes/preferences). None of it is strange. Strange tends to give a negative connotation and a lot of the fetishes or conditions highlighted in the show should not  be stigmatized in that manner. The people who suffer from any of these  conditions may or may not get a happy ending at the end of the episode but either way, their journey to find sexual fulfillment shouldn’t be given stigma. But what was I expecting from TLC I guess? They could have named it something like “Sexual Journeys” or “Sexual Health Biographies” or something. Those aren’t exactly pithy but they’re a start. Secondly, in the way all TLC shows handle any kind of personal difference among people, they oversimplify. They don’t talk about the condition from all sides. I appreciate that they let their subjects do most of the talking, and that most of the time there is a positive spin on things. But in some cases they can be very reductive and come to conclusions like “Well this person is a freak and for now things will have a disappointing ending for them” instead of saying that there are a number of factors influencing this person’s circumstances and perhaps we should look at how society has brought them to this point or how biology plays a large role in this outcome or maybe how communication and sex positivity could fix this. This reductive narrative wouldn’t be so obnoxious if it weren’t for the fact that they bring scientists, psychologists and medical people in to comment! So clearly they have the resources to give other perspectives, but not nearly enough of them? I just. yeah. So that’s what I’ll be talking about in these coming posts. Here’s a link to the show’s website. You can watch these episodes on Netflix instant watch (that’s where I’m watching them) and TLC’s website. I’ll label my further posts with the name of the episode and its number as part of the title.

 

 

Teaching Biology

I have taught now for both Anatomy and Physiology. And it’s possible I will be teaching a Bio 100 class this summer. Bio 100 is a basic biology class that reviews high school biology for non science majors. I think this will be a great experience for me because it will force me to simplify the complex ideas that I have understood for a long time, and put them into language that most people can understand. If I ever want to write a book about science that’s for a larger group of people, I’d have to start in this mindset.

Currently the syllabus outlines five important areas of Biology instruction for this class:

1. Life’s Chemical Basis: Molecules of Life and Cell Structure

2. Evidence of Evolution (this may be tricky for the class I’m teaching because of demographics of students and I’ll actually have to avoid using the word evolution initially so that I don’t turn them off the subject entirely.) Processes of Evolution, Population Ecology, Community Ecology, and Ecosystems

3. Ground Rules of Metabolism of Plant and Animal cells- Photosynthesis and How Cells Make Energy

4. DNA structure and Function- DNA to Protein and then control over genes

5. How Cells Reproduce- Meiosis, Human Inheritance

and a little tangent into Biotechnology…

I’ll try and maybe start doing little posts related to this stuff as the summer continues. It’s a good prompt for my writing at any rate. Sometimes it’s hard to get ideas for writing science stuff. Or more specifically, narrow down all of the ideas I have to one topic.

I’m baaaack

I haven’t posted on my wordpress in ages, but I’m going to try and get back in the swing of things and write on it more often.
Science/ Public Health things as of late:
I’m reading Sex in History by Reay Tannahill (still! I have been reading this for months now!) and it’s fascinating. I’ll have to pick some of my favorite lines out of it and post them on here.
Health: I’ve started teaching Human Anatomy and Physiology. This week in Anatomy we learned about the skin which is actually referred to as the Integumentary system. The system consists of all of your body hair, nails, and the skin itself. I may link you all to some of my Prezis and post my more interesting powerpoint slides.

Writing things: I’ve been asked to write for a new site called Chic Chatt. It’s pretty exciting!
I may try to write something new for Feminspire, although it’s been a while. If what I write doesn’t get posted, I’ll post it on here.

Well that’s all for now. Hope you all are well!

Smelling Sexy- Attraction, Scent and the Perfume Industry

Image

1959 Chanel perfume ad

The annual revenue for the perfume industry is 27.5 billion dollars. Yes you read that right, billions. Like many things that the mass media markets to us, perfume and body sprays are mostly about promoting ideal beauty through print ads and commercials sporting sexy women pouting and flaunting while a voice over tells us how our lives can be changed by a smell in a bottle. And since only 17% of American women do not use perfume, it’s pretty important that we have a better understanding of perfume and the science of smelling sexy.

Perfume has existed since ancient times, when royalty used essential oils and plant extracts instead of bathing. Those of low income would not be anointed with perfume unless part of a religious rite or when they were buried.  Perfume as we know it did not exist until the late 1800s when the science of creating  synthetic smells first started. Chanel No. 5 became the first globally famous perfume through these techniques and its high fashion  creator Coco Chanel. Creating perfume in the lab made perfume less of status symbol and more accessible and expected of every woman.  This led to today’s perfume market of over 1,120 brands on the US market alone.  We have perfumes that cover everything from date night, to the office, to out in the club, vacation, beach, etc. If you’re not wearing the right sexy scent, you’re not doing womanhood correctly.  So where exactly does this obsession with smell come from?

Humans sense of smell has been important for as long as we have existed as a species. We have to know if our food is safe to eat, if there are dangerous predators nearby and recognizing the scent of our mothers when we’re born. People with bad body odor are avoided because in prehistoric humans, a bad body scent may signal contagious disease or someone who was not a suitable mate.

The science of scent and human sexual attraction has been explored more and more in the past few years. Scientists have found that our sweat actually carries smells that indicate our genetic code. Certain genes’ code for scents that indicate how distantly related we are to a person- the more distantly related we are, the more healthy our potential offspring will be, and the better that person will smell to us.

They’ve also found that women at different points in their menstrual cycles will be attracted to the scents of different men, depending on where they are at. Women are more attracted to the scent of physically symmetrical men (symmetry is an indicator of health in the animal kingdom- healthy male=healthy babies) when they ovulate (body is ready to make a body), and it’s been found that men prefer the scent of sweat of women who are ovulating- our noses are tuned to when it’s best to get to baby making.

And that’s what perfume is all about- synthetically creating a scent that will attract a suitable mate, with good genes or show that we are healthy, wanted member of a group. Perfume is one area where the patriarchy has capitalized on our innate need to feel included through a sense that is not necessarily under our control.  It’s troubling that the most organic way of bonding with each other, the scent of our sweat, is constantly bad mouthed and substituted. Women must smell the way the group wants them to, and not the way that nature made them. So I say, do what you want! Go with or without perfume, wear organic perfume or the most expensive you can find. Smell how you want to smell. I think you all smell delicious. ❤

Green alternatives to perfume 

Natural perfumes 

Babies Know Mother’s Smell

Birth Control and Sense of Smell