Saturday, March 16, 2013


It's been fun, and I hope you've enjoyed reading the blog, but it must, sadly, go into its annual diapause.

Commas throughout the land will breath a sigh of relief.

The kitten is here because it is, somewhat surprisingly, one of the top search terms that brings people to this blog. Since I've barely ever mentioned kittens I can only presume it's because kittens is a very popular search term on the internet and a small fraction of those searching for them end up here. I would like to personally apologize to those people and provide this picture of a kitten.

Friday, March 15, 2013


Andy pointed out a couple of relevant studies in the latest Emerging Infectious Disease journal issue:

Predicting Hotspots for Influenza Virus Reassortment
The influenza pandemics of 1957 and 1968 were deadly; each killed about 1 million people. Both pandemics resulted from the mixing of genetic material of 2 types of closely related flu viruses, called reassortment. This occurs when both viruses infected the same host at the same time. This mixing produced a virus that was more lethal than either alone. This mixing could also happen again. Studies in mice have raised the possibility that mixing of the human seasonal flu virus and the bird flu virus could produce a novel virus that could spread rapidly and kill many people. To determine where such mixing is most likely to occur, researchers evaluated livestock densities and agricultural practices (looking for areas with human and bird flu viruses and high concentrations of pigs). They concluded that the areas at highest risk for a future flu pandemic are coastal and central China and the Nile Delta region of Egypt.

MRSA Infection Risk among HIV-infected Adults
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infections has emerged as an important public health problem. HIV-infected persons are at increased risk for infection and colonization (carrying the bacteria without signs of infection).  Because colonization increases risk for MRSA infection, prevention should be aimed at decreasing colonization. But where and how?  To learn where on the body these bacteria are most likely to colonize, researchers collected samples from HIV-infected patients and monitored these patients over time. Although the nose is consid­ered the primary reservoir of S. aureus, in this study the groin was also frequently colonized with MRSA, and those with groin colonization were more susceptible to developing active MRSA infection later. These data suggest that to prevent active MRSA infections, HIV-infected persons should maintain good general hygiene which includes groin hygiene and take steps to avoid potential MRSA exposures (e.g., by not sharing personal items that may become MRSA contaminated such as towels, bedding, and razors and by keeping cuts and scrapes clean and covered).

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Take it as a warning..

File under 'headlines you really don't want to see.'

6,000 Disease-Ridden Dead Pigs Found Clogging a River in Shanghai

"(S)ince the government arrested some tainted meat dealers, nobody comes to buy the stuff anymore. So it's normal that there are so many dead pigs in the river."

Although the Chinese authorities assure customers their water quality is unaffected:

6,000 Dead Pigs in River Not Affecting Shanghai's Water, Officials Insist

Concern is naturally being raised over water quality but anytime you get thousands of dead animals there's also the opportunity to ask why and to ask what warning signs we should be taking from this.

Or we could just redefine 'normal' to include thousands of dead pigs in a river

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Put to death

The science writer Carl Zimmer addressed the question of whether our stocks of smallpox should be destroyed back in 2011, the last time this decision was made. The decision will be back up for discussion again in 2014 I think.
Should Smallpox Be Put To Death?

 Should the virus be preserved so that it can be studied? Or should the virus be destroyed, so that—in theory at least—it would become extinct and would not threaten the human species again?

For a lengthier discussion see Smallpox Virus Destruction and the Implications of a New Vaccine  by D.A. Henderson, one of the people behind the eradication of smallpox.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Flu Vaccine myths

From the New York Times yesterday here's a straightforward little article that addresses a number of myths about the flu vaccine.
From “The vaccine doesn’t work ” to “The vaccine causes the flu”.

The information is taken from an article in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association):

Monday, March 11, 2013

Why is flu season in winter?

We all know that winter is flu season - but why? That turns out to be an interesting question and some of the answers you may have heard have been shown to be incorrect.

Check out this illustrated guide from Popular Science.

Here's the bottom line but it's worth checking out the link:

Quite possibly, the flu's annual winter-time parade through our immune systems has to do with both factors: the virus survives better and transmits more easily in cooler, drier air. The case isn't closed yet--and researchers are still looking into some of those other theories, like the idea that our immune systems are weaker in winter--but, for anyone looking for ways to avoid the seasonal flu (in addition to the flu shot, of course), a portable humidifier seems like a good place to start.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Number two

An item in the news over the last week that some of you may have seen - a second case of AIDS apparently 'cured' and by a completely different route to the first. From the New York Times:

Doctors announced on Sunday that a baby had been cured of an H.I.V. infection for the first time, a startling development that could change how infected newborns are treated and sharply reduce the number of children living with the virus that causes AIDS.

The baby, born in rural Mississippi, was treated aggressively with antiretroviral drugs starting around 30 hours after birth, something that is not usually done. If further study shows this works in other babies, it will almost certainly be recommended globally. The United Nations estimates that 330,000 babies were newly infected in 2011, the most recent year for which there is data, and that more than three million children globally are living with H.I.V.