Category Archives: Social Outreach

Microbe Matters Book Club: The Coming Plague by Laurie Garret

Cover of "The Coming Plague: Newly Emergi...For this installment of book club I am happy to introduce The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World out of Balance by Laurie Garret.

Written in 1994, this is an impressively well researched work on the current microbiological topics of the time. While this book is almost 20 years old, I was very impressed by how many of our current problems in health care were covered in these 620 pages and how well the content has held up to the passage of time.

What is even more impressive is how the author narrates the stories, giving a more human side to the factual recounting of disease outbreaks that most of us in the microbiology community are familiar with.

This book is arranged so that each chapter covers a specific disease or theme. Notable chapters on exotic pathogens include those on Bolivian Hemorrhagic fever, the Ebola virus, Lassa fever, the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in 1976, and the Hantavirus outbreak in the 4 corners region of the United States. These are all fascinating chapters as many of the people who were present for these events were interviewed and there is a real sense of the fear and confusion that accompanies the outbreak of unknown diseases.

These chapters also show “disease cowboys” in action during these outbreaks, scrambling to find out the causative agent or vector for these diseases. As someone who has just learned how to work in a Biosafety level 3 lab I can only imagine the difficulty involved in doing any kind or research in the field, let alone in with diseases that are known to be highly lethal.

The author does an excellent job of showing how environmental, social, and political factors drive the emergence of disease in human population. No other chapter covers this intersection quite as well as well as her work on the early years of the HIV epidemic. With 30 years separating me from this period in time it is easy to not think about how we got to where we are today with HIV; during my life it has always been here. It was eye-opening to see just how badly the epidemic was handled by politicians of the day or how distinguished scientists could fight so readily over discoveries relating to this new viral plague.

Overall, I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a more in-depth and extremely well written take on the challenges we face against the invisible armies of microbes that continually surround us.

Going against the herd: The importance of mass immunity in society

Poster from before the 1979 eradication of sma...
Poster from before the 1979 eradication of smallpox, promoting vaccination. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why is it that members of the public health community are worried about falling vaccination rates in the US when getting vaccinated is treated as a largely personal choice? Do our personal health decisions for ourselves and our children have an impact on the health of society as a whole?

The answer to this is that yes, our individual decisions do matter to society when it comes to combating the spread of contagious disease.

A large part of this is herd or community immunity; the way in which mass immunity in a population can control the spread of disease among individuals. Herd immunity is a major reason behind why so many deadly diseases have all but disappeared from American society; our vaccination rates protect many of those who are unvaccinated from contagious diseases. However, this is beginning to change in the US and we are beginning to see outbreaks of diseases that have not been of major clinical concern for decades.

Read on to find out more on how herd immunity and how it protects vulnerable members of society. Continue reading Going against the herd: The importance of mass immunity in society

Microbe Matters Book Club: The Panic Virus by Seth Mnookin

“A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on”

-Charles Haddon Spurgeon 1855

How many people do you know who haven’t vaccinated their children out of fear of giving them autism or mercury poisoning?

Have you or do you plan to vaccinate your own children?

Where did this fear of vaccines come from and why does it persist despite vastly overwhelming data pointing to their safety?

Why are we suddenly seeing outbreaks of diseases such as measles and whooping cough, diseases that we had thought controlled in this country decades ago?

Still Panicking about swine flu!

If you have ever thought about these questions go get a copy of The Panic Virus by Seth Mnookin and start reading. This is an incredibly well-researched volume not just on the science behind the vaccine-autism controversy, but on the swell of emotions and public opinion that have allowed this claim to bleed over into mainstream culture and persist despite volumes of rigorously peer-reviewed research debunking the myth time and again. The importance of this movement from a public health standpoint cannot be understated, in some parts of the country we are dangerously close to losing herd immunity to many pathogens due to falling vaccination rates. We are currently seeing outbreaks of diseases in the US that have been effectively gone for decades: measles, whooping cough, HiB, and other pathogens are coming back and hitting the growing unvaccinated populations in our country.

Read on for a review of this well-written look into the vaccine-autism controversy… Continue reading Microbe Matters Book Club: The Panic Virus by Seth Mnookin

Ask a Microbiologist #2: Questions from a future scientist

Bacteriophage attacking a bacterial cell
Bacteriophage attacking a bacterial cell (Photo credit: AJC1)

This week I received my first piece of reader mail and it contained some great questions from an undergraduate student at what I’ll call Big U. Here’s the background:

“I’m currently still working on my bachelors, but it is my ambition to earn my PhD, become a microbiologist, and research virology and bacteriology, topics which I have found articles on in your blog. However, I am new to the world of research, and I would love to be able to get some of your insights into a potential future in this field.”

A couple of these I really wish I’d know to ask before jumping into graduate school myself. So without further ado I’ll go straight into the questions. Continue reading Ask a Microbiologist #2: Questions from a future scientist

Passion for Communication

microphone
microphone (Photo credit: TOM81115)

Today I’ve been thinking about all of the influences that have made me so passionate about scientific literacy and effective science communication. As a global society we are challenged daily with obstacles that can most effectively be solved using our modern scientific understanding of the world. Yet for a variety of reasons much of the general public is unaware of the startling leaps and bounds generated by the modern global scientific community, aware but misinformed by sloppy reporting, to downright distrustful of science and those involved.  While we could go into these various issues and their origins at length, I would rather take a moment and share some of the resources that have pushed me to share my love of science with the public in the hopes that I can spread my passion for scientific communication to others. Continue reading Passion for Communication

New Training for the New Science

There has been a growing concern among scientists on how to train the next generation of researchers. This last month I came into contact with an article by Ferric C. Fang and Arturo Casadevall in Microbe magazine titled Reforming Science as well as the editorial Next-generation training in Nature. As a young researcher just beginning what I hope will be a lifelong career in the sciences this article hits on so many areas that need to be addressed. Three points in this article stood out to me and I wanted to address them from the perspective of someone who is just starting out and looking for training opportunities that will prepare me to work in the modern scientific field. These areas are the broadening of the scope of knowledge of new PhD trainees, a realignment of the culture to support quality of work over quantity, as well as the call to generate more flexible career pathways for young scientists in order to prevent attrition from the sciences. Continue reading New Training for the New Science