Tag Archives: parasites

Medical Microfiction: Cimex Lectularius

The Locals Know

Whenever I move, I like to visit the local grocery stores to get a feel for the culture. Shoes side-by-side with the produce in Italy. Chocolate genitalia in Belgium. Whole aisles of spaetzle in Germany.

And then my job took me to an isolated logging town in Idaho. The local convenience store stocked an unusually large selection of pesticides and woodcutting gear.

“What’s the deal? Roaches? Wasps?” I asked the shopkeeper.

“Bedbug outbreak,” he said. “You’ll want some spray and a chainsaw, just in case.”

He sounded crazy; I laughed. So I was unprepared that night when my bed attacked.

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Fruit and berries in a grocery store, Paris, F...
Fruit and berries in a grocery store in Paris, France (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My story “Alien” and the conversation it provoked on home and travel has got me feeling nostalgic about the itinerant life. I have a travel ritual where I hit the local grocery store as soon as possible when I go to a different country. It’s fun to see the similarities and the differences between what I normally experience and what my counterparts abroad experience when they sit down for a meal.

 I was in a grocery store when I first learned the meaning of the term “culture shock.” Shortly after my family moved from Italy to Georgia, I visited a Super Wal-Mart for the first time. If you live in an area without these suckers, let me just say they’re huge and they sell almost anything you can imagine, from groceries to furniture to garden supplies. The visit happened just a couple of days after we’d moved. I remember standing in the toothpaste aisle, heart racing and in complete shock because there was a whole aisle devoted to different kinds of toothpaste.

Crest toothpaste Purchased Feb. 2005 in Atlant...

What did it mean? Did these people just stand around all day brushing their teeth nonstop? How was I supposed to decide which type to buy? Toothpaste is toothpaste, and yet each box on the shelf bragged about being better than everything around it. My heart raced, and I realized I was hyperventilating. I wanted to go somewhere quiet and pretend like I was back in Italy, and this was all just a bad dream.

Visiting the local grocery store can be fun or terrifying, but it’s always worth your time.

English: Cimex lectularius the Bed-bug
A bed bug outside of its normal habitat: your bed. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cimex Lectularius is the scientific name for those most unwanted of sleeping companions, the bed bugs. Medically, bed bugs cause some mild problems for their human hosts. They can cause allergic reactions with their nasty little bites, anemia from the blood-sucking, and psychological distress because, well, you’ve got bugs crawling all over you at night.

Bedbugs have been making a comeback over the last decade here in the United States because of a combination of factors. Firstly, they’ve developed resistance to many of the insecticides that used to kill them. Other pesticides used historically have been found to be harmful to humans and/or the environment, which further narrows our options. Add to that increased world travel, and like any pest or illness, bed bugs seize the opportunity to colonize new places.

The important thing is to be prepared to deal with local issues when you travel, be they bed bugs or, um, bed bugs. Just pay attention to the grocery stores, and you’ll know what to do.

What are your traveling rituals? Do you like to hit the grocery stores too? Have you ever experienced culture shock?

Endemic! Week: Brain Parasites

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

They Always Land on their Feet

“Brain parasite Toxoplasma gondii infects rats through cat feces. It reprograms the rats’ brains. Make them fearless thrill-seekers,” Erica shouted over the plane engine. “They’ll dance between a cat’s paws after infection. Cats give people Toxo too. Freaky, eh?”

“Not really. Imagine losing your fear of death–sounds exhilarating. The ultimate adrenaline high,” Dave answered.

“Suit yourself. See you at the bottom!” Erica leapt from the plane’s open door. Far below, Erica’s parachute unfurled.

Dave gazed at the mountain peaks below. Like fang-rimmed jaws. “I’m going now!” He jumped.

The skydiving instructor grabbed for him, missed. “Wait! You forgot your ‘chute!”

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Hard at work producing brain parasites.
Hard at work producing brain parasites. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Do you own cats? Then there’s a chance that you’re already infected with toxoplasma gondii. The bad news is that Toxo is endemic among people who clean cat litter boxes, eat raw or undercooked meat, or eat unwashed veg. The good news? Provided you’re not pregnant or immunocompromised, Toxo appears to be relatively harmless.

Toxo’s a versatile protozoan (not the same thing as a bacterium or virus). All felines, from housecats to tigers, act as its primary host. Inside the intestines of cats, Toxo undergoes sexual reproduction and forms packages called oocysts in the intestinal lining. These oocysts, filled with dormant Toxo cells, get shed when the cat poops.

Next, the oocysts lie in wait for another warm-blooded mammal to stop by the cat scat. Someone like Dave, perhaps, scoops out the litter box, forgets to wash his hands, and with his next meal he consumes a few oocysts. When those oocysts hit his intestines, they spring into action, infiltrating the intestinal lining, but this time their goal is to release invaders directly into the bloodstream. These bits of Toxo ride your blood all over your body, setting up shop in your organs, muscles, and brain.

Yes, it infects your brain.

Life cycle of Toxoplasma gondii
Life cycle of Toxoplasma gondii. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Toxo forms cysts in the areas it settles in, and congratulations: you’re now permanently infected with Toxoplasma gondii. You’ve got ’em for life, buddy. Fortunately, this is as far as the Toxo can go. It just hangs out, hoping you’ll get eaten by a cat so that the whole cycle can start anew.

Unfortunately for Toxo, humans don’t get eaten much by felines these days. Perhaps we featured more prominently in Toxo’s life cycle back when lions and bobcats were a daily threat. Nowadays, it’s mice and rats that primarily perpetuate the Toxo cycle.

Here’s the interesting thing: in rodents, Toxo infection causes behavioral changes. Rats with Toxo lose their fear of cats. They’ll attack cats directly, or just waffle around when a cat comes after them. Obviously this is to the Toxo’s advantage — it wants the rat to behave dumbly so it can get eaten by a cat, continuing the life cycle. There’s evidence that Toxo causes personality changes in humans as well, making us more likely to take risks.

How common is Toxoplasma gondii? It’s one of the most common parasites found in humans. Up to a third of the world’s estimated to be infected. If you live in the United States, your odds are one in four. So wash your hands, wash your vegetables, and don’t eat cat poop. Otherwise you’ll join the standing army of Toxo carriers all around us right now.

Medical Microfiction: Myeloencephalic

“Lisa’s Pony”

Lisa danced from foot to foot beside her mother’s bed. “Mommy, I can’t sleep.”

Olivia stirred. “What’s wrong?”

Lisa showed her a pink, squashy, pony-shaped pillow. “Buttercup’s tag itches me!”

“Just pull it off,” mumbled Olivia.

“I can’t.” Lisa pointed to the tag, which read: DO NOT REMOVE UNDER PENALTY OF LAW.

Olivia took the pillow from Lisa. “That’s nothing. We can ignore that, sweetie.”

She ripped out the tag. With a sick gurgling sound, the pony jerked and stiffened, a black fluid oozing from the rip.

Olivia screamed. From the tag dangled eighteen tiny vertebrae and a pulsating brain.

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Cautionary Tales (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Cautionary Tales (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When is a pony pillow not a pony pillow? When it’s myeloencephalic, of course! This is a fancy word that simply means, “Pertaining to the spinal cord and brain.”

This story, like yesterday’s, was written for the Drabblecast’s weekly microfiction contest. The prompt was to write a story where following directions is a good idea. I got to thinking about all those horrible cautionary tales of old, such as the hilarious and terrifying German storybook StruwwelpeterI wanted to write something like that to explain why we shouldn’t rip those tags off of our pillows., even if they’re annoying us.

I’ve heard people riff on this before, and usually the joke’s that the police will show up at your door with handcuffs because they’re secretly monitoring pillows everywhere for violators. However, I wanted a sci-fi twist.

English: Spanish Walking Stick (Leptynia hispa...
English: Spanish Walking Stick (Leptynia hispanica), Le Caylar, Languedoc-Roussillon, France (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve noticed how pillow tags are always on the animal’s butt, if attached to a plushie of some sort. That suggests it’s attached to the terminal end of the spinal column, right? In my story, the pillow (and its tag) is a mimic of some sort, like one of those bugs that looks like a stick, but isn’t. Maybe it’s an alien life form that feeds off of human delta brainwaves while they sleep. Maybe it peacefully grazes on bedbugs while we’re out and about during the day. Either way, the tag’s just a clever gimmick designed to keep us from taking too close a look!

Now that you’ve all gotten a look into my slightly twisted sense of humor, let’s hear from you! Got a favorite cautionary tale, or a theory on what those dang tags mean?