Brilliant emergency shelter solution for natural and humanitarian disasters: fabric buildings that turn into concrete when sprayed with water. It takes only two people, some water, and air to erect a Concrete Canvas Shelter, technically known as a rapidly deployable hardened shelter. In 24 hours — voila! – shelter from the storm.
The Virtual Human Embryo Project is now an app for the iPhone and iPad. Scientists and educators have used the Carnegie Embryo Collection, housed at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, to define normal human embryo development for decades. A database, called the Virtual Human Embryo, has been created to provide digital serial sections of human embryos from the collection.
Like so much science, the images are awe-inspiring and a little creepy. Brace yourself when a munchkin voice pipes up from the back seat: “Hey, Mom, what’s with this new kid’s app?”
In last week’s flurry of news articles about a study that linked leprosy in humans and armadillos, I was struck by how several stories substituted sensationalism for informed reporting.
Particularly sophomoric was Chad Love of Field & Stream, who starts off by saying “Heartbreaking news for all the gustatory adventurers who love a good armadillo burger: eating one may cost you an arm and a leg…literally.”
However, the grand-prize winner in idiotic blather goes to Gawker’s hyperbolic and misleading “Armadillos Are Giving Everyone Leprosy,” which asks, “Are you a leper?” and then assures us that it’s “unlikely” the disease is transmitted by “armadillo-human sex.” Who writes this stuff? Who edits it? Did someone really think this witty or necessary?
I know I shouldn’t be surprised. All you have to do is search for “leprosy” on Twitter to glimpse the slimy underbelly of human insensitivity, which makes the funky, furry underbelly of the armadillo seem cuddly by comparison. For every tweet that contributes something meaningful to the dialog about this neglected tropical disease, there are dozens of twits making asinine jokes and ignorant pronouncements.
As Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, rhetorically asked Maureen Dowd, “Why does technology exonerate the kind of foul expression that you would not tolerate anywhere else?”
And why does it encourage an utter lack of empathy for human suffering? This is especially true in the case of leprosy, which for millennia has provoked fear and loathing, nervous titters, and knee-jerk hysteria.
All I can (selfishly) say is, the willful ignorance about leprosy, particularly the persistence of urban legends like “leprosy makes your limbs fall off,” means there is definitely a market for my book
At least now we have DNA confirmation.
There is a lot more to the story about people getting leprosy from armadillos than most news stories bothered to go into. As published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine, genomic analysis shows that wild armadillos and many patients with leprosy in the southern United States are infected with the same strain of M. leprae. However, it’s been known for 40 years that wild armadillos harbor leprosy, and extensive contact with armadillos has been implicated in numerous leprosy cases in Texas and Louisiana.
In 1974, a scientist named Eleanor Storrs made a startling discovery at the Gulf South Research Institute in Louisiana. She had been breeding nine-banded armadillos there for several years and inoculating them with M. leprae to cultivate bacilli to be used in developing a vaccine. Leprosy cells are notoriously impossible to grow in a lab but they thrive in cool regions of the human body. Storrs, an armadillo expert, knew that armadillos have naturally low body temperatures for mammals and figured they’d be good incubators. Her GSRI armadillo colony was initially a boon for researchers as she was able to produce huge volumes of bacilli from immunologically naïve young.
Then a funny thing happened on the way to the farm. She discovered that some of the newly captured dillos brought to her by locals (think Swamp People) were already infected with leprosy. This was weird and merited further investigation, but the reaction in the scientific community was unusually swift and hostile. Accusations flew – her methods were unsound, infected armadillos had escaped and were running amok, armadillos has been feeding on leprous cadavers, she’d lied about her results. None of these allegations were proved, yet her funding was mysteriously cut. Storrs relocated her research operations to the University of Florida, but the damage was done. The fiasco was a devastating blow to leprosy vaccine research.
Never mind that subsequent surveys showed a significant prevalence of the disease in armadillos captured in Louisiana and Texas. Or that in 1985, Richard W. Truman, one of the authors of this latest NEJM paper, detected antibodies to an M. leprae-specific antigen in stored armadillo sera collected in the early 1960s. Or that, contrary to popular notions, evidence exists that shows leprosy exists as a zoonosis in at least two other animal species.
We’ll explore that, along with the origin of leprosy in wild armadillos in future posts.
How do you move a collection of preserved human fetuses, hairballs, and Lincoln skull fragments? With TLC and a wistful sigh as one of my favorite haunts, the quirky and informative National Museum of Health and Medicine, closes its location at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, on Sunday, April 3.