Tag Archives: endemic

Endemic! Week: Inoculation

Today concludes Endemic! Week: an entire week of microfiction crafted around the word “endemic.” If you missed the introduction, read about it here.

Immunity

One by one, all my friends succumbed to the illness. But stick to my plan and you’ll stay healthy like me. It takes a regimented set of inoculations to prevent an outbreak.

The pustules are the first symptom, pockmarking the skin like geysers. Then the diseased patients emit a rank odor. Finally, a grotesque transformation begins: arms and legs shoot out at awkward angles. Tumors form. Thick hair grows in the most unspeakable places.

Before you know it, all they want to talk about is boys.

I warned them this would happen if they didn’t keep their cootie shots up-to-date.

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Vaccine research
Vaccine research (Photo credit: Novartis AG)

Contrary to what my friends told me in elementary school, boys do not have the cooties and I didn’t need to get a cootie shot to protect myself from them. Nor will the cootie shot prevent puberty; you’re doomed to get that awkward armpit stench eventually. They were right, though, that inoculation is an effective approach for counteracting common diseases that are endemic to certain populations.

Measles, for example, used to be endemic throughout the Americas. Enough people had measles that the disease became self-sustaining; outbreaks occurred each year like clockwork, killing off those not strong enough to fight off the illness. But check out what happened in England when the MMR (Measles-Mumps-Rubella) vaccine was introduced:

Reported cases of measles in England and Wales...
Reported cases of measles in England and Wales from 1940–2007. The graph shows the bi-annual cycle of epidemics that followed the war. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

See that sudden drop-off? Very cool! Measles outbreaks still occur in North America from time to time as a result of international travel and reduced herd immunity resulting from the anti-vaccination movement, but we are lucky that measles is no longer endemic. That means, for the moment at least, there are not enough measles cases for the disease to perpetuate itself without new cases being introduced from outside the region.

Varicella, or chickenpox, is a common childhood disease endemic throughout the whole world. Most of you reading this blog have probably had it. Back in 1974, Michiaki Takahashi developed a vaccine, which over time has become routine for children in the US. Speaking as a kid who got chickenpox on the day of my birthday party, I say good riddance. I’m glad to know that some of the younger folks out there have grown up without having anything to do with an oatmeal bath.

Pertussis bacteria (Bordetella pertussis)
Pertussis bacteria (Bordetella pertussis) (Photo credit: Sanofi Pasteur)

Pertussis (whooping cough), another once-endemic disease, is making a comeback in the First World.  In 2012, whooping cough outbreaks reached epidemic status in Washington State, Vermont, and Wisconsin. There are a few reasons for this resurgence. The anti-vax movement has had a hand in the outbreaks, as have the failure of adults to get booster shots after routine vaccination as children. Also, there is some evidence that the more recent batches of the vaccine wear off sooner than scientists expected, meaning school-age children might need a booster sooner than scheduled.

So make sure you keep your boosters up-to-date. Otherwise, you’re going to get hair in unspeakable places.

Chickenpox vets, got any interesting memories of everyone’s favorite childhood endemic disease?

Endemic! Week: Earworms

Endemic! Week: an entire week of microfiction crafted around the word “endemic.” If you missed the introduction, read about it here.

Transmission

Meth’s for amateurs. Heroin? Puh-leeze!

If you really want to influence people, look to Alka-Seltzer and Oscar Mayer.

Infectious. Addictive. They’ll be carriers before they realize. Their brains will form new neural pathways. Repetition will reinforce it. Unthinking, they’ll contaminate their friends. They’ll never be rid of it until the day they die.

They’ll all be mine, and by the time they realize what I’ve done, it’ll be too late.

All over the world, they’re putting in their earphones and cranking up the speakers on their computers and in their cars. Then the transmission begins:

“Jelly is a bouncy treat…”

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Ah, earworms. What can we do about you? Like a vampire, we invite you in the first time, but once inside, you just. Won’t. Leave.

Photo of green gelatin
Jelly is a bouncy treat,
Never runny, always sweet,
Squishy underneath your feet,
Give us all some jelly!
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I composed today’s piece of microfiction after catching an earworm from Drabblecast Episode #43: Jelly Park. This infectious little jingle is an ode to tasty, tasty gelatin in all its shapes and forms. Now I like a nice bit of jello as much as the next kid, but I had this jingle in my head for weeks after listening to it. Weeks! Humming it in the morning while brushing my teeth. Humming it at night as I tried to fall asleep. Humming it later at night, when said earworm sent me back to my headphones for the only short-term cure I know: listening to it one more time.

If you think that’s bad, consider this: I once had Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” stuck in my head for over a month. Every time I got one part of the song out of my head, a new earworm from the same song would step up and take its place. (“Will you let me go?” “No, we will not let you go!”)

Earlier this week, it occurred to me that like Toxoplasma gondii and obesity, culture can be endemic too. Our music behaves much like an infectious endemic disease. A tune passes from person to person, spreading through localized populations, and settling in to stay. It won’t kill its host, but it’ll make you into another disease vector. Even the word “transmission” has a double meaning: it can refer to a music broadcast, or to infecting someone else with your disease.

And the most devious thing? Earworms really will be with you for life.

Earworms: they're coming for you.
Earworms: they’re coming for you. (Photo credit: Flats!)

Our brains create memories by building and reinforcing neural pathways called memory traces or engrams. Memorization teaches your brain a new route through the woods of thought. Each repetition digs the trail a little deeper. Do this often enough, and your brain will lay down pavement, set up road signs, turn that memory into a major highway through your cerebrum.

As we know, earworms just won’t quit playing in your head. And if you’re anything like me, you feel compelled to gorge yourself on the offending tune until it dies. The devious little earworm knows what it’s doing: it’s burrowing its way deep into your brain, reinforcing itself through repetition, so that on your deathbed, you’ll still be humming that dang tune about the jelly.

Some of the research on earworms suggests that musicians get them more often than the rest of us. I don’t know whether to pity them or to point a finger and laugh. After all, they’re the ones who write those catchy tunes to begin with. Musicians are basically Patient Zero. It seems only fair that their infections would be the most virulent.

So enjoy those earworms, musically inclined friends. You brought them on yourselves.

…Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to listen to the jelly song again. Maybe this time I’ll get it out of my head.

What’re you currently listening to? Got an earworm? Share some of your favorite music with me in the comments below!

Endemic! Week: Invasive Species

Endemic! Week: an entire week of microfiction crafted around the word “endemic.” If you missed the introduction, read about it here.

Vigilante Gardening

Joe surveyed the kudzu-covered water tower. An invader, that plant. It could take down power lines and uproot whole trees.

He grabbed the vines and climbed. It’d seemed innocent enough when introduced. No one anticipated its aggression. Bereft of natural competition, it choked out the local species, leaving ecological devastation in its wake. Native flora lived under siege, restricted to nature preserves by this newcomer.

What’s the best way to kill weeds? With herbicide, of course. Joe, last of his tribe, emptied the cyanide into the town water supply.

Kudzu, after all, wasn’t the only invader on these Cherokee shores.

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Kudzu Light
Kudzu: looks innocent, right? (Photo credit: matt.forestpath (flash200))

Today’s Endemic! Week story uses the word endemic in its ecological sense. Local plant species are endemic to an area, as are Native Americans to America. The invader, be it kudzu or the colonial European settlers who arrived a few centuries ago, could be seen as a sort of epidemic which runs through the native populations, causing a sudden mass die-off. For those of us living in the United States, this is one of our great national shames.

For me, it’s not even the fact that disease caused such devastation among the Native American tribes at the arrival of the Europeans. Aside from the cases where smallpox was spread on purpose as a biological warfare agent, germ exchange happens when people groups meet for the first time. What really gets me is the failure of the European settlers to recognize the sovereign nations already present. Human beings who had lived there for generations were forced from their homes without thought or consideration. The colonial see-it-and-take-it mentality floors me.

Makes you want to do something about those invasive weeds.

Kudzu taking down a forest.
Kudzu taking down a forest. (Photo credit: SoftCore Studios)

Kudzu, by comparison, is a more recent invader. It was introduced to the United States in 1876, and reached the South by 1883 as an ornamental plant. Unfortunately, taken outside its native turf in Southeast Asia, kudzu has no natural competition to keep it under control. It thrives in hot, sunny conditions and is tolerant to drought, which makes it grow rapidly in Southern weather. It kills off local plants by shading them to death. Worst of all, it’s so aggressive that it grows over everything in its path, be it tree, car, or water tower.

Of course, people are not weeds, and poison is not an appropriate way to rectify a shameful historical genocide. Joe’s a sociopath, but one whose motivations I can at least understand, if not condone. Revenge fantasies are all well and good (who doesn’t enjoy seeing Hitler get what’s coming to him in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds?), but they don’t solve any problems or show us a better moral way. Answering murder with murder gets us nowhere.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure there’s an easy solution to the historical injustice. The epidemic weed has become endemic to the very regions it invaded. One problem with removing all the kudzu at once in the South is that it would open up vast amounts of land to erosion. Removing the invader would actually hurt the land more. In the same way, removing descendants of the European settlers at this point would be painful, difficult, and harmful. Still, the statistics show that the descendants of the Native Americans continue to feel the effects of evils done so many years ago. How do we find room for justice in this picture?

I’m in over my head on this question; I’d love to hear your thoughts. What do you think the United States and other nations dealing with the aftermath of colonialism can or should do to fix the evils of the past?