In a blitz of media frenzy, Charlie Sheen recently announced he is HIV positive. So, should we care?
Before saying anything else, absolutely and unequivocally: YES! Raising awareness for disease is always a good thing. Remember that ALS ice bucket challenge? Even a disease like HIV, which for the general public is a has-been, benefits from media attention. To the medical and scientific community, HIV is so much more. HIV remains the number 1 infectious disease killer and top-funded research area. Despite not yet having an effective vaccine (the Holy Grail of infectious disease if there ever was one), we’ve made enormous progress in understanding this unwieldy virus.
In a strange collision of infectious disease and oncology, The New England Journal of Medicine (@NEJM) yesterday published a case report of a man who succumbed to cancer, which was surprisingly not his own, but his parasite’s.
It’s that time of year again. The sequences are in, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have made their recommendations, and the vaccine has been prepared. As an immunologist, I’m sad to say that I know far too many people who decide to forgo their flu shots each year. When I ask why, I’ve gotten a variety of answers including:
“I never get the flu” “I once got flu from the shot”
“The flu shot never works, it’s just a guess”
And my all-time favorite: “My body is stronger than the flu”
I’d like to set the record straight since each of these statements is ultimately and ridiculously flawed.
There is an epidemic currently sweeping up and down the west coast of the United States. From Alaska to southern California, something wicked is causing lesions, malformations, and mass casualties. To help support this cause, it’s not the CDC, WHO, nor Red Cross to whom you should send a donation. Instead, pick this up at your local packie:
Rogue Ales & Spirits has teamed up with Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO) to brew Wasted Sea Star Purple Pale Ale—a beer for drinking while thinking about the shrinking starfish population. That’s right, the epidemic is not happening to people (thankfully, this time), but our star-shaped sea friends are being wiped out by an outbreak of sea star wasting disease.
For many years, we’ve known that measles virus infection messes with your immune system. During infection, you are at greater risk of infections caused by other pathogens because measles thwarts the proper immune attack. At the same time, your body makes a long-lasting response to the measles virus. This is often known as the “measles paradox”.
…not polio, nor HIV, tuberculosis, or influenza, but that doesn’t mean that millions won’t benefit from it’s elimination. The next eradicated disease will likely be Guinea worm disease (dracunculiasis).
Recently, a letter written in 1988 by beloved British children’s lit author Roald Dahl resurfaced. The letter was written on behalf of his deceased daughter Olivia, who caught measles and died in 1962 at the all-too young age of 7. Prior to the development of the measles vaccine, this was a horrifyingly common occurrence. In his letter, Dahl recounts the last day of Olivia’s life and pleads parents to vaccinate their children.
“In my opinion parents who now refuse to have their children immunised are putting the lives of those children at risk.”
-Roald Dahl’s 1988 letter
Measles is a highly contagious viral infection that starts somewhat innocuously as a flu-like disease before exploding into an itchy rash that can spread all over the body. Measles is particularly dangerous when the virus infects the lungs and progresses to pneumonia or infects the brain and causes inflammation leading to seizures and brain damage. This brain infection is what ended poor Olivia Dahl’s life all those years ago. And although Roald Dahl recognized that the vaccine was not available in time to save his eldest daughter, he was conscious of the well-being of his other children and all the kids all over the world that are captivated by his fantasy worlds in books.
“Are you feeling all right?” I asked her. “I feel all sleepy,” she said. In an hour, she was unconscious. In twelve hours she was dead.
-Roald Dahl’s 1988 letter
Perhaps the very worst aspect of humanity is our illusion of independence. Humans have evolved into self-thinking, -centered, and -indulgent individuals that have, for the most part, lost site of the microcosm that we inhabit and that inhabit us.
“Our bodies may belong to us, but we ourselves belong to a greater
body composed of many bodies.”
-Queen Elizabeth I
Eula Biss takes this social stance in her fascinating new book On Immunity: An Innoculation, which should find itself on every mothers’ reading list. The birth of Biss’ son transformed her from a relatively fearless woman into a MOM–one who will do quite literally anything to protect her child. Like any mother, Biss second guesses many of the decisions she has made on behalf of her son, including vaccinations. Continue reading Tending to our community garden→
When I was one month old, my parents took me on my first trip to India to visit my grandparents and extended family. I was a healthy baby, but a vulnerable one as I had not received most of my vaccinations yet. Thanks to herd immunity – a result of most people around me on the flights, in the airports and in my extended family being vaccinated – I was safe. The recent outbreaks of easily preventable diseases such as measles and whooping cough have frightened me because I think of all the people who cannot be vaccinated, including babies or people with compromised immune systems or allergies. They rely on the rest of us getting vaccinated to stay safe. Unfortunately, even when armed with facts, it can be frustrating to argue one’s case with members of the anti-vaccine movement. But sometimes a (moving) picture really does speak a thousand words.
This past summer, I served as a preliminary judge for the Biomedical Sciences category at the 2014 Jackson Hole Science Media Awards. When I saw that one of the finalists was entitled “Jabbed – Love, Fear and Vaccines,” I panicked, assuming that this documentary was going to promote the spurious link between autism and vaccines. I was pleasantly surprised to find that “Jabbed,” produced by the Australia-based Genepool Productions, excellently illustrates the science behind vaccines while also addressing fears about vaccination. The documentary went on to win the best Biomedical Sciences program at the Jackson Hole Science Media Awards (note: while the original “Jabbed” documentary is unavailable for viewing outside of Australia, you can view a trailer for the program here). Genepool Productions also collaborated with NOVA to produce an American version of this program, entitled “Vaccines – Calling the Shots,” which utilized some of the same footage in “Jabbed” and can be viewed in its entirety here (it originally aired in September). While I found the latter to be jumpier in its editing, it is also better tailored to an American audience. Both “Jabbed” and “Vaccines” pack a lot of punch, interspersing interviews with prominent researchers, anecdotes from several different families from around the world and graphics to illustrate how the immune system works (if you have only two minutes to spare, watch this short video because it’s both adorable and accurate). While this could have ended up being an information overload, the stories are balanced to provide insights into not only the spread of infections, but also the spread of misinformation and fear.