Highlights this week include dengue in New York, detecting ricin, a suspected al Qaeda biological weapons expert, the evolution of flu, and polio and the Taliban. Happy Friday, and have a bacteria-free Thanksgiving!
For the first time, a locally-acquired case of dengue fever has popped up in the state of New York. The infected individual had not left the region at any point during the incubation period. This suggests that the probable route of infection was a mosquito which had taken a blood meal from an infected person before biting the New York patient. The patient has made a full recovery. However, this case highlights the truly global nature of infectious disease today. Dengue is considered a “neglected disease” by the WHO, meaning its research on its treatment and cure receive comparatively less funding. This is especially unfortunate as the virus, which is considered “pandemic-prone” causes an estimated 100 million infections every year in 100 different countries. It’s easy to dismiss dengue as a disease which affects other people in far-flung parts of the world, but this simply isn’t the case anymore. The prevalence of international travel means relative geographical isolation is no longer the protective boundary it once was.
Global Dispatch – “‘Given the recent introduction of Aedes albopictus into New York State and the high level of travel in New York to areas of the world endemic for dengue, it is not surprising that a locally acquired case of dengue has been found in the state,’ said State Health Commissioner, Nirav R. Shah, M.D., M.P.H. ‘This finding emphasizes the need for physicians to be aware of signs and symptoms of diseases common in tropical countries, but may occasionally present themselves in New York.'”
The CDC has sponsored research on decontaminating ricin. While the utility of spending large amounts of money on vaccine development against certain pathogens can sometimes be questionable, decon is an area of real importance that is under-researched. A letter containing ricin may not kill a lot of people, but its particles can linger for a very long time at each of the mail facilities it traveled through.
Military News – “The paper, which is entitled, ‘Surface Sampling of a Dry Aerosol Deposited Ricin,’ examines swab materials commonly used to sample biological threat agents from surfaces. The paper documents his studies, which demonstrates the need for accurate dissemination techniques to effectively evaluate sampling technologies in an environment mimicking the ‘real-world’ environment where the toxin may be present.”
Israel is currently in a bit of a bind over it’s holding of a suspected biological weapons expert. According to court documents released this week, Samer Hilmi Abdullatif al-Barq was trained as a microbiologist in Pakistan, had military training in Afghanistan, and eventually was recruited by Ayman al-Zawahiri into the al Qaeda weapons program. Israeli courts have yet to try al-Burq, due to lack of sufficient evidence, but his actions in the area, including attempted recruitment of others into al Qaeda, render him too dangerous to release. Moreover, attempts to release him into the custody of neighboring states have been politely declined. It’s clearly a complicated case.
New York Times – “In a document presented to the court, the military prosecutors described Mr. Barq as an operative in the global Qaeda organization with ‘a rich background in the field of nonconventional weapons, with an emphasis on the biological field,’ having studied microbiology in Pakistan. The prosecutors argued that Mr. Barq’s release at this time to the West Bank, where he is a resident, would constitute ‘a point of no return in the development of a significant global jihadist infrastructure in the area.'”
A recent study published in the journal Science details novel research on the hemagglutinin protein (HA) of the H3N2 flu strain. The work examined mutations in the protein between 1968 and 2003 which prompted structural changes. In doing so, researchers were able to pinpoint changes in seven key amino acids that prompted evolutionary change in the virus. Better understanding the virus’ points and methods of evolution could help in the creation of more efficacious vaccines.
ABC Australia – “The researchers confirmed their findings by engineering changes to these seven amino acids and testing the antibody response to the new virus in ferrets. Importantly, the amino acids singled out by Barr and colleagues are close to the site on the HA protein that binds to host cells. This limits the number of amino acid substitutions that are possible as many changes will alter the protein’s structure, interfering with the virus binding process. ‘The virus can evolve in a number of different directions,” says Barr. “If we can narrow that down to a small number of directions then we’ve got a better chance of trying to work out which particular virus might be the one which is going to turn up in a year’s time.'”
Wired has an excellent long-form piece on polio vaccinations and the Taliban. The six-part article is interactive, and includes audio interviews, photo galleries, and infographics on why eradicating polio is so important and so challenging. Obviously, we highly recommend it!
Excerpts – “The virus typically infects only the mucosal tissues of the gastrointestinal system for a few weeks, where the immune system clears it before any harm is done. After that, the infected person would be immune to future infections from the same strain. However, in less than 1 percent of infections, the virus attacks the central nervous system and causes paralysis. Typically this affects just the legs. But in 5 to 10 percent of paralytic cases (that is, 0.05 percent of total infections), polio paralyzes the breathing muscles, meaning that without artificial respiration the patient will suffocate. All this explains why polio is so difficult to annihilate. For every one person who actually gets sick, nearly 200 are carrying the virus and infecting others…
“[T]he math of cost-benefit analyses runs aground when it comes to eradication campaigns, because the benefits, in theory, are infinite. That is: No one will ever die from—or spend a dime on vaccinating against—smallpox for the remainder of human history, barring a disaster involving one of the few lingering military stockpiles. According to a 2010 study, polio eradication would generate $40 billion to $50 billion in net benefits by 2035.”
(image: Sgt. Mike R. Smith, National Guard Bureau)