(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘epidemic

“It is sad to go to pieces like this but we all have to do it”*…

Still, some species “do it” differently than others…

It is well known that somatic mutations — mutations in our body’s genetic code that accumulate over time — can cause cancer, but their broader role in ageing is less clear.

Now a team of researchers have measured the somatic mutation rates of a range of mammals and discovered a striking correlation between mutation rate and lifespan. Lending evidence to the theory that somatic mutations are a cause of ageing rather than a result of it…

Ageing is linked to accumulated mutations: “The lifespan secret: why giraffes live longer than ferrets,” from @Nature.

* Mark Twain, on aging


As we grow old gracefully, we might send carefully-deduced birthday greetings to William Ian Beardmore (WIB) Beveridge; he was born on this date in 1908.  A veterinarian who served as  director of the Institute of Animal Pathology at Cambridge, he identified the origin of the Great Influenza (the Spanish Flu pandemic, 1918-19)– a strain of swine flu.

WIB Beveridge


Happy Shakespeare’s Birthday!

“The threat of a pandemic is different from that of a nerve agent, in that a disease can spread uncontrollably, long after the first carrier has succumbed”*…

We were, of course, warned. As we do our best to digest the news of emergent new strains of the COVID-19 virus, a look back at Annie Sparrow‘s 2016 New York Review of Books essay on pandemics…

Pandemics—the uncontrolled spread of highly contagious diseases across countries and continents—are a modern phenomenon. The word itself, a neologism from Greek words for “all” and “people,” has been used only since the mid-nineteenth century. Epidemics—localized outbreaks of diseases—have always been part of human history, but pandemics require a minimum density of population and an effective means of transport. Since “Spanish” flu burst from the trenches of World War I in 1918, infecting 20 percent of the world’s population and killing upward of 50 million people, fears of a similar pandemic have preoccupied public health practitioners, politicians, and philanthropists. World War II, in which the German army deliberately caused malaria epidemics and the Japanese experimented with anthrax and plague as biological weapons, created new fears…

According to the doctor, writer, and philanthropist Larry Brilliant, “outbreaks are inevitable, pandemics are optional.”

Much of human history can be seen as a struggle for survival between humans and microbes. Pandemics are microbe offensives; public health measures are human defenses. Water purification, sanitation, and vaccination are crucial to our living longer, better, even taller lives. But these measures of mass salvation are not sexy. While we know prevention is better and considerably cheaper than cure, there is little financial reward or glory in it. Philanthropists prefer to build hospitals rather than pay community health workers. Pharmaceutical companies prefer the Western market to the distant and poor Global South where people cannot afford to buy treatments. Education is a powerful social vaccine against the ignorance that enables pathogens to flourish, but insufficient to overcome the corruption of public goods by private interests. The current enthusiasm for detecting the next panic-inducing pathogen should not divert resources and research from the perennial threats that we already have. We must resist the tendency of familiarity and past failures to encourage contempt and indifference…

An important (and in its time, sadly, prescient) read: “The Awful Diseases on the Way,” from @annie_sparrow in @nybooks.

See also “6 of the Worst Pandemics in History” (source of the image above) and “A history of pandemics.”

[TotH to MK]

Hannah Fry


As we prioritize preparation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1935 that physicist Erwin Schrödinger published his famous thought experiment– now known as “Schrödinger’s cat“– a paradox that illustrates the problem of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is s-cat.jpg


“Thought is an infection. In the case of certain thoughts, it becomes an epidemic.”*…

Frank M. Snowden, a professor emeritus of history and the history of medicine at Yale, examines the ways in which disease outbreaks have shaped politics, crushed revolutions, and entrenched racial and economic discrimination. Epidemics have also altered the societies they have spread through, affecting personal relationships, the work of artists and intellectuals, and the man-made and natural environments. Gigantic in scope, stretching across centuries and continents, Snowden’s account seeks to explain, too, the ways in which social structures have allowed diseases to flourish. “Epidemic diseases are not random events that afflict societies capriciously and without warning,” he writes. “On the contrary, every society produces its own specific vulnerabilities. To study them is to understand that society’s structure, its standard of living, and its political priorities.”…

Epidemics as a mirror for humanity- Isaac Chotiner (@IChotiner) interviews Frank Snowden: “How Pandemics Change History,” conducted on the occasion of the publication of Snowden’s new book, Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present.

See also: “Late-Stage Pandemic Is Messing With Your Brain.”

And for thoughts on addressing the issues raised, see “Governing In The Planetary Age.”

* Wallace Stevens


As we reflect, we might spare thought for August Paul von Wassermann; he died on this date in 1925. A bacteriologist and hygienist, he was director of the Institute for Infectious Diseases in Berlin, where he developed (in 1906) a universal blood-serum test for syphilis that helped extend the basic tenets of immunology to diagnosis. “The Wassermann reaction,” in combination with other diagnostic procedures, is still employed as a reliable indicator for the disease. He also he developed inoculations against cholera, typhoid, and tetanus.


“Not with a bang, but with a whimper”*…



Death Table from Tuberculosis in the United States, prepared for the International Congress on Tuberculosis, September 21 to October 12, 1908. Image: U.S. National Library of Medicine


Recent history tells us a lot about how epidemics unfold, how outbreaks spread, and how they are controlled. We also know a good deal about beginnings—those first cases of pneumonia in Guangdong marking the SARS outbreak of 2002–3, the earliest instances of influenza in Veracruz leading to the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 2009–10, the outbreak of hemorrhagic fever in Guinea sparking the Ebola pandemic of 2014–16. But these stories of rising action and a dramatic denouement only get us so far in coming to terms with the global crisis of COVID-19. The coronavirus pandemic has blown past many efforts at containment, snapped the reins of case detection and surveillance across the world, and saturated all inhabited continents. To understand possible endings for this epidemic, we must look elsewhere than the neat pattern of beginning and end—and reconsider what we mean by the talk of “ending” epidemics to begin with…

Contrary to hopes for a tidy conclusion to the COVID-19 pandemic, history shows that outbreaks of infectious disease often have much murkier outcomes—including simply being forgotten about, or dismissed as someone else’s problem: “How Epidemics End.”

* T. S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”


As we contemplate the end, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Nettie Maria Stevens; she was born on this date in 1861.  A geneticist– and one of the first American women to achieve recognition for her contributions to scientific research– she built on the rediscovery of Mendel‘s paper on genetics (in 1900) with work that identified the mechanism of sexual selection: its determination by the single difference between two classes of sperm—the presence or absence of (what we now call) an X chromosome.

220px-Nettie_Stevens source


“When it was in the extremity there was no such thing as communication with one another, as before”*…



The island of Lazzaretto Nuovo, shown here, was one of the isles where the city of Venice quarantined plague-stricken individuals in the 15th century


Just beyond the shores of Venice proper—a city comprised of dozens of islands—lie two uninhabited isles with a rich history. Today these landmasses are landscapes of grasses, trees, and worn stone buildings. But once they were among the most important gateways to this storied trading city.

The islands, known as Lazzaretto Vecchio and Lazzaretto Nuovo, are now yielding fascinating insights into Venice’s response to one of the most famous pandemics in history. In the mid-14th century, Venice was struck by the bubonic plague, part of an outbreak, known as the Black Death, that may have killed up to 25 million people, or one-third of the population, in Europe. This spread was just one of several waves of the plague to strike Northern Italy in the centuries that followed.

Venice, as a trading center, was especially vulnerable. “They saw that the only solution was to separate people, to take away the sick people, or suspected sick people,” says Francesca Malagnini, of the University for Foreigners, Perugia, who is herself a Venetian, linguist, and member of an interdisciplinary team researching Lazzaretto Nuovo. “This was the only way to protect everyone’s health and allow the economy to continue.”

Beginning in the early 15th century, the island of Lazzaretto Vecchio was designated for isolating and treating plague-stricken Venetians. Later, Lazzaretto Nuovo became a spot where ships coming from places experiencing the plague, or those with suspected sick passengers or crew, anchored. There, people and goods spent a period of quarantine before being allowed into the heart of the city. (We owe the English word “quarantine” to the Italian term for 40 days, quaranta giorni.)…

Archaeological research is unearthing Venice’s quarantine history to illuminate how the Italian city created a vast public health response 700 years ago and helped lay the modern foundation for coping with pandemics: “Venice’s Black Death and the Dawn of Quarantine.”

See also: “How the Black Death Radically Changed the Course of History (and what that can teach us about the coronavirus’ potential to do the same).”

* Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year


As we stay safe, we might spare a thought for Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran; he died on this date in 1922.  A physician and public health and infectious disease researcher, he served as Chair of Military Diseases and Epidemics at the École de Val-de-Grâce, then joined the Pasteur Institute, then founded the Société de Pathologie Exotique; through his career, he published over 600 papers, journal articles, and books on infectious diseases and their agents.  In 1907 he won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discoveries of parasitic protozoans as causative agents of diseases like malaria and trypanosomiasis.

220px-Charles_Laveran_nobel source


Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 18, 2020 at 1:01 am

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