Pandora Report 9.18.2015

What an interesting week! Ongoing salmonella cases, imported plague in Michigan, ISIS was found to be using chemical weapons, and a new prion disease was discovered. Pretty busy in the world of biodefense, I’d say. The Pandora Report is also fortunate to share with you a great piece by one of our graduate students, Greg Mercer, who tapped into Google Trends to look at ISIS nomenclature, and an upcoming book written by Dr. Brian Mazanec, regarding cyber warfare. So sit back and relax while we catch up on the week’s biodefense news.

US Confirmation of Islamic State Chemical Weapons

Operational_Readiness_Exercise_121014-F-LP903-827Sulfur mustard traces were found on fragments of ordnance used by the Islamic State, as well as on scraps of clothing from victims in Syria and Iraq. There have been several accounts by Kurdish officials that have claimed chemicals, like chlorine, were dispersed this summer, which is concerning for the ongoing use of these internationally banned substances. Testing done in the US was reported by officials on Friday, September 11, 2015, stating that, “there’s no doubt ISIS has used this,”. Officials have also said that the chemical residue recently found does not match known chemical ordinance that was used in the former Iraqi inventory. Overall, the use of chemical weapons is highly distressing and the method of acquisition, either manufacturing or from undeclared stocks, is under investigation.

Michigan Experiences Imported Plague Case

 A Michigan woman is the second case of bubonic plague that was traced back to the Little Rainbow area of Colorado. The Michigan resident was visiting family in Salida, CO during a music festival in late August. While her exact exposure hasn’t been established, she became ill after returning home and was hospitalized shortly thereafter. Lucky for the diagnosticians, she displayed textbook plague symptoms, leading to CDC involvement and antimicrobial treatment. Fortunately, she was released from the hospital and is beginning the long road to recovery, although it’s probably the last time she’ll attend that particular music festival or go hiking around it….

The So-Called Islamic State 2
By Greg Mercer

In February, I wrote about a topic that had been puzzling me- the contentious nomenclature of the Islamic State, or ISIS, or ISIL, or Daesh.  I decided to revisit this question now that the issue is a staple in the news, and that we’re probably saying it more frequently while thinking less about what we call it.  So I fired up my good friend Google Trends[1] again to take a look.  Google is a decent measure of public interest in a subject.  It’s the most popular search engine[2] in the world, with 66.78% of search volume worldwide as of August 2015.

Last time, I found that ISIS was the most popular term by a fair amount.[3]  This seems to be true this time around too, which isn’t terribly surprising.  Here’s what I got:
Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 6.24.26 PM

 

 

 

 

 

This time around, ISIS is still the most popular, but Google’s added a feature that tells us a little more.  While I suspected that the terrorist organization was driving most of the searches for ISIS before, it’s true that ISIS is the only of the names that has other popular uses, notably an Egyptian goddess, a think tank, and of course a fictional intelligence organization.  The new “topics” option in Google Trends lets us identify search volume for an entire subject.  The dotted purple line indicates all searches for the organization, regardless of naming specifics.  Since the searches for “ISIS” specifically and all of the searches for the organization are strongly correlated, it’s safe to say that mythology enthusiasts, nuclear scholars, and Archer fans aren’t skewing the trends.

It’s also still the case that search volumes for all of the names spike with major news events- no surprise there.

I also found the search trends by country interesting, here’s a look at the different terms and how they show up globally:

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 7.33.14 PM
Click on image to see Google Trend analysis and additional graphs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A couple of takeaways:  Looking at the organization as a whole, the two most interested parties (by Google search) are Iraq and Iran.  That’s not too surprising.  Iran is also #1 for “Daesh”, which is used in both Arabic and Farsi and is considered more a disparaging name.  In fact, the Iranian foreign minister told Iranian state media in January (fair warning, this links to Iran Daily) that he hates the term “Islamic State” and prefers “Daesh.”  In my earlier article, I noted that other foreign policy practitioners share this sentiment, and prefer a name that doesn’t recognize the organization as a state or representative of Islam.  This is also definitely the least popular name in mainstream American media.[4]  Ethiopia and Peru are the highest by volume for ISIS and ISIL, respectively, neither of which I would have expected offhand.

It’s interesting to see how these trends break down, and to look at a single massive political issue and international crisis with such a proliferation of terms.  I think the name that finally sticks remains to be seen.

[1] This links to the search parameters I used for this article, so you can play around with the data.
[2] This site is really cool if you’re into this sort of thing- you can see what site users choose based on browser, operating system, and device type.
[3] Personally, I tried ISIL in the name of accurate translation, but I tended to use ISIS when being flippant, and then it ended up sticking.
[4] To get anecdotal, the only person I’ve heard use it is my buddy who does Arabic translation and Middle East studies for a living.

The Evolution of Cyber War

Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 6.39.11 AMGMU’s very own, Dr. Brian Mazanec, delves into the world of cyber warfare and the reality of this threat. “Already, major cyber attacks have affected countries around the world: Estonia in 2007, Georgia in 2008, Iran in 2010, and most recently the United States. As with other methods of war, cyber technology can be used not only against military forces and facilities but also against civilian targets. Information technology has enabled a new method of warfare that is proving extremely difficult to combat, let alone defeat.” Available on November 1, 2015, we’re excited to share Brian’s phenomenal work!

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Flu vaccination rates went up a bit for the 2014/2015 season, however, the efficacy was only 18% due to an antigenic drift. Fortunately, vaccination compliance for healthcare workers increased and overall rates showed that women were more likely than men to get vaccinated.
  • The Australian government will pass a new law, the “No Jab, No Pay Bill“, that will penalize parents who don’t vaccinate their children by withholding child care and other payments.
  • An additional 77 cases of Salmonella Poona were reported since September 9, 2015, related to the multi-state cucumber outbreak. The total infected is now 418 people across 31 states, with 91 hospitalizations.
  • A new prion disease has been identified by a team of scientists led by Stanley Prusiner. Their report outlines the discovery and the potentially infectious nature of this new prion.

Pandora Report 7.11.15

Sorry for the late update here at Pandora Report. We’ve got how the plague turned so deadly, an Ebola update, and of course other stories you may have missed.

Have a great week!

These Two Mutations Turned Not-so-Deadly Bacteria Into the Plague

Researchers at Northwestern University have been investigating how Yersinia pestis—the bacteria that causes bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic plague—became the infective cause of the Black Death. They discovered two mutations that help to explain the bacteria’s lethality.

Smithsonian.com—“The first mutation gave the bacteria the ability to make a protein called Pla. Without Pla, Y. pestis couldn’t infect the lungs. The second mutation allowed the bacteria to enter deeper into the bodies, say through a bite, to infect blood and the lymphatic system. In other words, first the plague grew deadly, then it found a way to leap more easily from infected fleas or rodents to humans.

Ebola Strain Found on Teen in Liberia Genetically Similar to Viruses in Same Area Months Ago

I’m sure you’ve heard that there were three new cases of Ebola in Liberia—a country that was declared free of the disease on May 9. According to the World Health Organization, samples taken from a teenager who died from Ebola two weeks prior indicate that the disease is genetically similar to strains that infected people in the same area over six months ago—while the outbreak was still ongoing.

US News and World Report—“That finding by genetic sequencing suggests it is unlikely the virus was caught from travel to infected areas of Guinea or Sierra Leone, the group said. “It also makes it unlikely that this has been caused by a new emergence from a natural reservoir, such as a bat or other animal,” it said.”

Stories You May Have Missed

Image Credit: en.wikipedia

Pandora Report 6.14.15

I’ve got brunch reservations this morning so the big story about the coming egg shortage is hitting close to home. We’ve also got a story about ISIS’ WMD and a bunch of stories you may have missed.

As a final reminder, the Early Registration Deadline for the Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and International Security is tomorrow, Monday, June 15. For more information and registration, please click here.

Enjoy the rest of your weekend!

Egg Shortage Scrambles U.S. Food Industries

The unprecedented outbreak of avian influenza in the U.S. has meant massive losses in the domestic poultry industry which has left experts warning that U.S. consumers are very likely to see an increase in egg prices. Cases of avian flu have been reported in 15 states, with Iowa and Minnesota being some of the hardest hit. “In Minnesota, the number of lost turkeys represent about 11 percent of our total turkey production…of the chickens we’ve lost that are laying eggs, 32 percent… have been affected by this” In Iowa, about 40 percent of the state’s egg-laying chickens and 11 percent of its turkeys have been affected. All these losses will mean a shortage of whole eggs and other egg-based products.

U.S. News and World Report—“Consumers haven’t felt the pinch too much just yet, but they are unlikely to emerge with their pocketbooks unscathed, [Rick] Brown [Senior VP at Urner Barry, a food commodity research and analysis firm]. He says two-thirds of all eggs produced in the U.S. remain in a shell, many of which are placed in cartons and sold in grocery stores. This stock of eggs has been hit significantly less by the avian flu outbreak than those used in the egg products industry, which Brown says encompasses “everything from mayonnaise to salad dressings to cake mixes to pasta to bread.”

Australian Official Warns of Islamic State Weapons of Mass Destruction

You may have already seen this, since this story was everywhere this week. Julie Bishop, Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, said the Islamic State (ISIS) already has and is already using chemical weapons. Bishop made these comments in an address to the Australia Group—a coalition of 40 countries seeking to limit the spread of biological and chemical weapons. In a follow-up interview, Bishop also said that NATO was concerned about the theft of radioactive material and what that could mean for nuclear weapons proliferation.

The Washington Post—“‘The use of chlorine by Da’ish, and its recruitment of highly technically trained professionals, including from the West, have revealed far more seriou­s efforts in chemical weapons development,” Bishop said, using an alternate name for the Islamic State in a speech reported by the Australian. She did not specify the source of her information.  “… Da’ish is likely to have amongst its tens of thousands of recruits the technical expertise necessary to further refine precursor materials and build chemical weapons.’”

Stories You May Have Missed

 

Image Credit: Hannahdownes

Pandora Report 3.1.15

My apologies for no update last week, I had to make an unexpected, emergency, work-related trip to Dulles Airport, my old stomping grounds. But everything is under control and we’re back at it, covering stories from the past two weeks. Fittingly, we start off with airport screening, and also cover the Black Death, chemical weapons in Libya, Ebola, and other stories you may have missed.

Have a great week and stay safe in the weather out there!

Airport Screening for Viruses Misses Half of Infected Travelers

A team led by UCLA researchers has found that airport screening—for viruses like H1N1 and Ebola—misses at least half of infected travelers. The team found that no more than 25% of passengers answered honestly about their exposure to influenza in 2009 and that some may have been able to hide symptoms by taking over-the-counter drugs like acetaminophen. Timing of the screening may impact detection ability, too.

Science 2.0—“‘We found that for diseases with a long incubation period, such as Marburg and Ebola, taking passenger’s temperature to test for fever is particularly ineffective at the start of the epidemic but does pick up more cases as the epidemic stabilizes,” said Katelyn Gostic, a lead author of the study and a UCLA doctoral student in the laboratory of Professor James Lloyd-Smith. “With diseases such as swine flu, which take a shorter time to incubate, fever screening is the most effective method throughout an epidemic.’”

Plague Pandemic May Have Been Driven by Climate, Not Rats

Rats may have been incorrectly receiving centuries of blame for European plague, or Black Death. According to Nils Stenseth, of the University of Oslo, the introduction, and re-introduction, of the disease to Europe may have been caused by Asian climate events. Additionally, black rats where rare in Northern Europe, so the likely rodent culprit may have actually been gerbils. Moreover, the plague is not naturally found in Europe, but it is endemic in Asia in the rodents that live there. However, when the climate becomes warmer and wetter, rodent numbers drop and the fleas seek out alternative hosts, like domestic animals and humans.

Smithsonian—“The scientists will need more data to prove that Asian climate was responsible for all the reintroductions of plague to Europe. For instance, analysis of plague DNA from European victims who died at different time periods could strengthen the link between climate and outbreaks. “If our theory of climate-driven successive reintroductions is correct, we would expect to find great genetic bacterial variation between plague victims across time,” Stenseth explains. If the bacteria had instead come from a single introduction, there would be less genetic variation in the pathogen’s DNA, even when taken from victims from different times and locations.”

ISIS Chemical Weapons Libya: Military Warns Islamic State Might Have Mustard Gas, Sarin

Islamic State fighters in Libya have allegedly seized large amounts of chemical weapons including mustard gas and Sarin that reportedly belonged to the regime of Moammar Gadhafi. Last year, though, Libyan officials said they destroyed the last known stockpile from Gadhafi’s regime.

International Business Times—“The weapons are likely 10 years old and in a degraded state, but remain dangerous, former British Army officer Hamish de Bretton-Gordon told The Daily Mail Sunday. “While we don’t know how much IS has acquired, and though the Libyan Sarin dates back to the Gadhafi era, it would still have a toxicity and pose a danger,” he said. “Libya is virtually Europe and so the fear factor from a European perspective is huge. I should think the security forces will be watching this situation very closely.’”

This Week in Ebola

It’s been awhile since an Ebola update, but there was some good news worthy of coverage as schools re-opened in Liberia on February 16, as a sign that life is starting to return to normal. Countries are still keeping an eye out for the virus, including, inexplicably, North Korea, who has banned foreign runners from their April marathon (yes, that is actually a thing!) A piece appeared in the Journal of the American Society of Microbiology that indicated it is “very likely that at least some degree of Ebola virus transmission currently occurs via infectious aerosols generated from the gastrointestinal tract, the respiratory tract, or medical procedures.” However, there is some good news including a new product, similar to hand sanitizer, that can kill bacteria and viruses within 15 second of application and can work for up to six hours and a rapid diagnostic test for both Ebola and Dengue. Lastly, it wouldn’t be an Ebola update without a questionable article—this one is about a Baltimore wedding gown designer who went to New York Fashion with an Ebola suit. Sigh.

Stories You May Have Missed

 

Image Credit: Micah Sittig

Pandora Report 11.23.14

Thanksgiving is mere days away so it makes sense to look at some stories that can provide appropriate dinner discussion during those awkward lulls, right? These stories may provide that, though, I suppose that depends on who you eat your holiday dinner with (my family is very tolerant of my eccentricities.) With that said, this week we will look at plague in Madagascar, polio in Africa, antibiotic resistance in turkeys, and, of course, an Ebola update.

In observance of Thanksgiving there will not be a news wrap up next weekend. From all of us at the Pandora Report, we wish you a safe, warm, and delicious Thanksgiving!

Madagascar Plague Outbreak Kills 40, Says WHO

The World Health Organization has reported that an outbreak of plague in Madagascar has killed 40 and infected almost 80 others. The WHO warned that rapid spread of the disease could take place in the capital, Antananarivo. Humans usually develop the bubonic form of plague after being bitten by an infected flea carried by a rodent. This type, if diagnosed early, can be treated with antibiotics. However, 2% of the cases in Madagascar are pneumonic plague, which can be spread much more easily from person-to-person through coughing.

BBC—“Last year health experts warned that the island was facing a plague epidemic unless it slowed the spread of the disease. It said that inmates in Madagascar’s rat-infested jails were particularly at risk.”

Africa Nears Polio Eradication, CDC Says 

Maybe Ebola will be a topic of conversation at your Thanksgiving table. Maybe not. If you want to share some great news out of Africa, share this story. According to the Centers for Disease Control, wild polio virus has nearly been eradicated! The drop in cases in Africa has been attributed to successful vaccination campaigns in Nigeria.

Time—“No case of polio has been recorded on the continent since August, the report finds. There have been 22 cases of polio in Africa overall since the beginning of 2014, six of which were in Nigeria, one of the last three endemic nations alongside Pakistan and Afghanistan. The latest tally marked a drastic reduction from 49 cases in Nigeria the previous year.”

To Slow Down Drug Resistance in Health Care, Buy an Antibiotic-Free Turkey for Thanksgiving

We’ve seen, here at Pandora Report, that growing antibiotic resistance is a problem that spans countries and continents. Just in time for the best holiday, the Health Care without Harm nonprofit has suggested that health care workers (and, well, everyone else, too) can contribute to slowing the growth of antibiotic resistance by buying an antibiotic-free turkey for Thanksgiving. If you haven’t yet bought your turkey, maybe you’ll be motivated by what they say.

Wired—“Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem that more and more patients and providers are facing each day, and antibiotic overuse is a major contributor to this problem. While as many as 50% of antibiotic prescriptions may be overly broad or even unnecessary, animal agriculture uses four times the amount of antibiotics as human medicine, and mostly in healthy animals for growth promotion or disease prevention on crowded farms…

We are advocating for a broader concept of antimicrobial stewardship.”

This Week in Ebola

The doctor who was flown to Nebraska for treatment for Ebola died this week from a very advanced case of the disease. The need for hospitals in the U.S. and Africa that are qualified to deal with Ebola has not waned and there is an urgent need for the reinforcement of public health systems. In the meantime, New York Senator Chuck Schumer has called for New York City to be reimbursed for the costs it incurred to quarantine and treat Dr. Craig Spencer. In airport news, the Department of Homeland Security has said that they are adding additional screening for passengers arriving from Mali as there are signs of wider Ebola exposure in that country and officials in India have quarantined a man who recovered from Ebola after treatment in Liberia in September. And while UN officials have warned that the epidemic is “not even close to over” there is good news coming out of Liberia where CDC officials say that the spread of the disease has definitely slowed. Lastly, the Gates Foundation has pledged $5.7 million to test treatments for Ebola in Guinea and other countries in West Africa and Band Aid has put together a new recording of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” with proceeds going to the Ebola fight. (There are two other amazing anti-Ebola songs, in this link, too!)

Stories You May Have Missed

 

Image Credit: Oregon Live

Pandora Report 8.31.14

Fall classes at George Mason have already started and this Labor Day weekend marks the official end of summer. This week, we have stories covering a wide range of topics—an Ebola update (of course), a fascinating article on vaccinia infections acquired through shaving, Haj precautions, and the ISIS “laptop of doom.”

Best wishes for a safe and enjoyable holiday!

Ebola Virus Outbreak Could Hit 20,000 Within Nine Months, Warns WHO

There were many stories this week covering the continuing Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Senegal saw its first (imported) case of the virus this week and has banned flights to and from the affected countries while shutting its land border with Guinea and Nigeria saw its first death outside of the capital city of Lagos. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Ebola first emerged in 1976, there have been reported cases of a hemorrhagic gastroenteritis similar to Ebola. I read conflicting accounts this week of the “patient zero” for the Ebola outbreak—a young boy or an older traditional healer. There were reports of some U.S. universities screening students from West Africa for Ebola. There was coverage of a Toronto medical isolation unit ready for patients and information about GlaxoSmithKline’s experimental ebola vaccine which would be tested on humans in the next few weeks.

All of this news came among World Health Organization estimates that this West African outbreak could affect 20,000 people over the next nine months and that half a billion dollars would be needed to stop the spread of the disease.

The Wall Street Journal—“The WHO program will likely cost around $490 million and require contributions from national governments, some U.N. and non-governmental agencies, as well as humanitarian organizations, it said.”

First Reported Spread of Vaccinia Virus Through Shaving After Contact Transmission

This week, reports in the August issue of Medical Surveillance Monthly Report from the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center covered vaccinia virus infection—the virus used for smallpox vaccinations—within the U.S. Air Force. The infections in the report occurred in June 2014, and affected four individuals.

Infection Control Today—“Over the past decade, most cases of contact vaccinia (i.e., spread of the virus from a vaccinated person to an unvaccinated person) have been traced to U.S. service members, who comprise the largest segment of the population vaccinated against smallpox. Most involve women or children who live in the same household and/or share a bed with a vaccinee or with a vaccinee’s contact. Of adult female cases, most are described as spouses or intimate partners of vaccinees or secondary contacts. Of adult male cases, most involve some type of recreational activity with physical contact, such as wrestling, grappling, sparring, football, or basketball. Household interactions (e.g., sharing towels or clothing) and “unspecified contact” are also implicated.”

Government to Keep Haj Infection-Free 

This week, the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Health announced mandatory measures for Haj and Umrah pilgrims coming from countries with active outbreaks or high rates of infectious diseases. The Health Ministry sent information to embassies outlining health requirements for those seeking pilgrim visas.

Arab News—“‘Although we do not issue Haj visas for pilgrims coming from endemic countries, we will still be monitoring pilgrims coming from other African countries for Ebola symptoms,’ said [Sami] Badawood [Jeddah Health Affairs director.]

He said the ministry would also focus on diseases such as yellow fever, meningitis, seasonal influenza, polio and food poisoning.”

Is the ISIS Laptop of Doom an Operational Threat?

Discovery of a laptop, which has been linked to ISIS, raises new questions about the organization’s plans relating to use of WMD—specifically chemical or biological weapons. Over 35,000 files on the laptop are being examined and has offered new insight into ISIS and their WMD aspirations.

Foreign Policy—“Most troubling is a document that discusses how to weaponize bubonic plague. But turning that knowledge into a working weapon requires particular expertise, and it’s not clear that the Islamic State has it.”

 

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Mason Researchers Looking for Fresh Answers in a Medieval Disease

George Mason University’s National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases has been researching the causative agent of plague–Yersinia pestis.


George Mason University professor Ramin M. Hakami is searching for new ways to treat modern ailments by studying bacterial and viral biodefense agents, including the medieval disease notoriously known as the Black Death.

Along the way, he’s also coaching the next generation of researchers. The two endeavors are equally critical, says Hakami, who knows firsthand how crucial mentoring can be to young researchers from when he himself was a student earning his doctorate in biochemistry in the laboratory of the Nobel Laureate Professor Har Gobind Khorana at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Read the full article here.

 

Image credit: George Mason University

Pandora Report 7.26.14

Highlights this week include, Dr. Frieden goes to Washington, top Ebola doc comes down with the virus, a TB patient on the loose in California, and a plague based shut-down in China. Have a great weekend!

CDC Director to Tackle MERS, Measles, Global Health Threats

It was my absolute pleasure to be able to attend a talk given by Dr. Tom Frieden, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at the National Press Club on Tuesday.  Though Dr. Frieden briefly covered the stated topics, he spoke primarily about the dangers of growning antibiotic resistance and hospital acquired infections. He urged everyone, including the CDC, to work hard(er) to combat these issues that may usher us into a “post-antibiotic era.” The entire speech is available here. (You may even notice me in the lower left corner chowing down on a CDC cupcake!)

USA Today—“‘Anti-microbial resistance has the potential to harm or kill anyone in the country, undermine modern medicine, to devastate our economy and to make our health care system less stable,” Frieden said.

To combat the spread of resistant bacteria, Frieden said the CDC plans to isolate their existence in hospitals and shrink the numbers through tracking and stricter prevention methods.”

 

Sierra Leone’s Top Ebola Doctor Infected as the Worst Outbreak in History Continues

You may have seen this story pop up earlier this week in our facebook or twitter, but it certainly bears repeating. Dr. Sheik Umar Khan, who has been credited with treating more than 100 Ebola victims, has come down with the virus too. He is now one of hundreds who have been affected by the virus in West Africa, which has killed over 600.

The Washington Post-“In late June, Khan seemed keenly aware of the risk he faced. “I am afraid for my life, I must say, because I cherish my life,” he told Reuters. “Health workers are prone to the disease because we are the first port of call for somebody who is sickened by disease. Even with the full protective clothing you put on, you are at risk.’”

 

California Police Seek Man Who Refused Tuberculosis Treatment

Prosecutors in Northern California have obtained an arrest warrant for Eduardo Rosas Cruz, a 25 year old transient, who was diagnosed with TB and disappeared before he started treatment. Rosas Cruz needed to complete a nine-month course of treatment. Tuberculosis spreads through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It is not known if Rosas Cruz is currently contagious. By law, health officials cannot force a patient to be treated but courts can be used to isolate an infectious individual from the public at large.

FOX News—“County health officials asked prosecutors to seek the warrant, in part, because Rosas Cruz comes from a part of Mexico known for its drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis. County health officials are searching for Rosas Cruz, and his name is in a statewide law enforcement system, San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney Stephen Taylor said.”

 

In China, A Single Plague Death Means an Entire City Quarantined

Parts of Yumen City, in Gansu Province, were quarantined after a farmer died from bubonic plague. The man developed the disease after coming in contact with a dead marmot on a plain where his animals were grazing. According to experts, Chinese authorities categorize plague as a Class 1 disease, which enables them to label certain zones as “infection areas” and seal them off. 151 people were affected by the quarantine, which was lifted after none developed symptoms.

The Guardian—“The World Health Organization’s China office praised the Chinese government’s handling of the case. “The Chinese authorities notified WHO of the case of plague in Gansu province, as per their requirements under the International Health Regulations,” it said in a statement to the Guardian. “The national health authorities have advised us that they have determined this to be an isolated case, though they are continuing to monitor the patient’s close contacts.’”

 

Image Credit: RT

Pandora Report 7.11.14

Highlights from this week include, vaccines, plague, ISIS, and smallpox. Oh my!

The Price of Prevention: Vaccine Costs are Soaring

For all the talk around here about anti-vaxxers, there might be a larger threat to vaccine preventable diseases in the United States…lack of vaccines or vaccines that are no longer affordable. In this insightful piece, the complicated story of vaccine necessity, vaccine scarcity, and vaccine cost is told through the doctors at the front lines. States require students to be vaccinated to attend school but the vaccines are hard to find. For doctors, keeping vaccines that may not be used or may not be reimbursed has become a grave financial burden.

The New York Times—“Old vaccines have been reformulated with higher costs. New ones have entered the market at once-unthinkable prices. Together, since 1986, they have pushed up the average cost to fully vaccinate a child with private insurance to the age of 18 to $2,192 from $100, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

 

Deadliest, Rarest Form of Plague Contracted Near Denver

It’s baaaaack. In the state’s first reported case since 2004, a Colorado man has been diagnosed with pneumonic plague. Pneumonic plague is the airborne version of the disease that can be transmitted through droplets from coughing or sneezing. In this case, the man has been treated with antibiotics while investigation of the source of the outbreak continues. Authorities think the man may have contracted it from his dog that had suddenly died and had been found to carry the disease. Many cases of plague in the U.S. come from contact with mammals and small rodents such as prairie dogs.

Bloomberg—“Plague in all of its forms infects only about seven people yearly in the U.S. The disease occurs when a bacteria named Yersinia pestis infects the body, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The difference between the pneumonic and bubonic varieties is that the bacteria takes hold in the lungs in the first case, rather than underneath the skin through insect bites. Both types are treated with antibiotics.”

 

ISIS Seizes Former Chemical Weapons Plant in Iraq

As the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) tears through Iraq taking over cities, they have taken over some other things, too. These include a science lab at Mosul University, where they took 88 pounds of uranium components, and a former chemical weapons facility north-west of Baghdad. According to Iraq, in a letter circulated at the United Nations, the Muthanna facility held 2,500 degraded chemical rockets that were filled with sarin nerve agent or their remnants. The U.S. government has not expressed fear that these materials could be used to create a viable chemical or dirty bomb.

The Guardian—“A U.S. State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, expressed concern on 20 June about Isis seizing the complex, but played down the importance of the two bunkers with “degraded chemical remnants”, saying the material dates back to the 1980s and was stored after being dismantled by UN inspectors in the 1990s.

She said the remnants “don’t include intact chemical weapons … and would be very difficult, if not impossible, to safely use this for military purposes or, frankly, to move it”.”

 

Smallpox Virus Found in Unsecured Government Lab

On the heels of accidental anthrax exposure at the CDC, reports this week highlight a concerning trend of lack of lab precautions when it comes to dangerous biological agents. Vials of smallpox, one of the most deadly viruses known to man, were discovered in an unused storage portion of a lab in Bethesda, MD.

Time—“The vials, which date from the 1950s, were discovered by National Institutes of Health workers on July 1, CDC said in a statement. The lab […] had been neither equipped nor authorized to store the pathogen, which was eradicated in 1978. Upon discovery, the vials were secured in a containment laboratory before being transported to another lab in Atlanta on July 7, where workers confirmed they contained DNA for the smallpox virus. There is no evidence the vials were breached, CDC said, and experts have not identified any danger to the public.”

 

Image Credit: U.S. Navy

 

Bubonic Plague: An Airborne Toxic Event

by Alena M. James

Yersinia pestisis a gram negative, bacillus shaped bacteria that prefers to reside in an environment lacking oxygen (anaerobic). It is typically an organism that uses the process of fermentation to break down complex organic molecules to metabolize.  However, the organism is commonly referred to as being a facultative anaerobe, because it can live in the presence of oxygen and undergo respiration to generate energy for its cell. Its facultative capability is one reasons the organism can induce infection in highly oxygenated lung tissue.

This organism, primarily a zoonotic pathogen, has been held responsible for causing the bubonic form of plague responsible for the Black Death, the 14th century event that lead to the death of millions of Europeans. For years, the cause of the Black Death Plague pandemic has been linked to fleas. In much of Europe at this time, unsanitary living conditions provided the perfect breeding grounds for flea infested rats to flourish; while the fleas served as the perfect arthropod vector for Y. pestis to flourish.

The route of transmission of Y.pestis, from fleas to humans, was thought to occur via the urban cycle—when an urban rat becomes infected with fleas from a wild animal. Crowding in cities, poor hygiene, and unsanitary living conditions attracts large rat populations to the area. When a flea carrying Y.pestis bites a rat, the rat becomes sick and dies. No longer able to parasitize the rat, the flea moves from the rat to a new host. In crowded cities, the fleas from the dead rat will jump to humans to feed. When the flea bites the human it releases Y. pestis into the human’s cardiovascular system. Once in the cardiovascular system, the bacterial organism makes its way to the lymph nodes.  There it replicates and spreads throughout the body causing septicemia. As Y. pestis proliferates within the lymph nodes it also forms hemorrhagic necrosis throughout the body.  Painful swelling arises and the definitive painful symptom, the bubo,appears.  After infection, a patient develops a high fever and the organism can target specific organs of the body like the lungs, liver, and spleen. Without treatment, a patient has a 75% mortality rate.


Last week, British scientists performed comparative DNA analysis on bacterial samples collected from 25 excavated skeletons found in the Clerkenwell area of London. These remains dating back to the 14th century contained samples of Yersinia pestis, the bacteria responsible for the Black Death. In an attempt to evaluate the virulent nature of the pathogen, the Y. pestis DNA collected from these remains were compared to DNA from the Y. pestis responsible for the deaths of more than 30 people in Madagascar back in December 2013. Researchers concluded that the DNA of both organisms revealed a high percentage of similarity and that the pathogenic nature of the 14th century Y. pestis is no more powerful than the Y.pestsis responsible for the Madagascar killings.

After considering this information and examining the plausible death of the skeletons, scientists believe that the fast-acting killing capabilities of Y.pestis are only likely to take place through airborne transmission. This conclusion undermines the urban cycle transmission method and suggests that the Black Death was mostly caused by pneumonic plague and not bubonic. British scientists are determined to examine more modern cases to confirm this new hypothesis. If confirmed, we may see pneumonic plague identified as the causative agent for the 14th century plague pandemic thus altering our historical account of the Black Death.

For British scientists, the transmission of Y. pestsis through respiratory droplets is a much more likely scenario for achieving rapid kills versus the urban cycle transmission method. Bubonic plague is not infectious and there is no human to human transmission from the buboes that form.  However, pneumonic plague can be caused by bubonic plague if the Y. pestis pathogen makes its way via the lymph nodes to the lungs inducing infection. While in the lungs, the organisms are caught in respiratory droplets and are then disseminated into the air when an infected person sneezes or coughs. This quickly makes the host very infectious and a threat to those not yet infected.  The mortality rate for patients suffering from pneumonic plaque without treatment is 100%.

 

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