Hantavirus Takes Over Yosemite National Park

Visitors to California’s Yosemite National Park got a bit more than they bargained for after visiting the park earlier this summer. At least eight people have reportedly been infected with the deadly hantavirus after spending time in one of the camps at the 1,100 square-mile park. And with news that a third camper (the other five are expected to make a full recovery) has died from the disease, recent visitors are expressing concern that park employees could have done more to prevent the spread of the virus and protect guests.

There is no known cure for the rodent-borne hantavirus which spreads through contact (or from breathing in air that has come into contact) with the urine, saliva, or droppings of infected animals. Upon entering the body, the hantavirus can lead to fatal diseases like the hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS), a disease all eight of the visitors are known to have contracted. The disease is characterized by a high fatality rate–an estimated 38% of people who contract the disease will eventually die from it.

Because deer mice are a common carrier of the disease, the California Department of Public Health conducted a test in 2010, to estimate how prevalent the disease was in the park. They found that 18 percent of the mice tested from the park carried the virus. Even so, it is rare that humans will become infected with the disease; however if conditions allow, than the transmission is possible. Such was the case at Yosemite’s Curry Village area and High Sierra camps, where the infected persons were known to have camped. Scott Gediman, a Yosemite spokesperson maintains that the camps in question have since undergone a deep cleaning, and the risk is once again minimal.

But that might not be enough according to visitors. Despite the park contacting past guests about the issue, many fear that the park service handled the situation “irresponsibly,” and that sites that were known to have been infected should have been dealt with before additional campers were allowed access.  The biggest issue revolves around whether those camps and tents where the disease was present should have been off-limits to other campers before they were cleaned. For example, visitor Chris Reid, 61, visited Curry Village on August 16—the same day the park learned of the disease—and was not informed about the possible danger during her visit. Reid stated that had she known about the risk she would have left the camp.

“I can’t tell you how reckless I feel this is,” said a psychiatrist from California, another camper who visited the park this summer with his 5-month-old son. “If you have an amusement-park ride where people are dying, you don’t keep the ride open while you fix it.”

According to park officials, everything that could have and should have been done has been taken into account. “We feel that we took the most transparent approach possible,” explained Gediman. “As new information became available, we took the most appropriate.” Despite the disagreement, what can be certain is that the park must take better steps to alerting patrons of similar situations in the future. To petition the regional director of the National Park Service to develop a better emergency response plans for future crises such as this, sign the petition here.


Photo Credit: cnr07.llnl.gov/

Ebola Rears Its Ugly Head Once Again in Uganda

Several deadly cases of Ebola in Uganda have officials worried that a much larger outbreak of the disease may close at hand. Over the course of July, 14 Ugandans have passed away due to the consequences of the deadly disease and at least 26 new cases have been brought to the attention of local hospitals and medical personnel. With these numbers expected to rise, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni urged residents of the west African country to be wary and steer clear of unnecessary contact.

“Ebola spreads by contact when you contact each other physically…Avoid shaking hands, because that can cause contact through sweat, which can cause problems,” Museveni warned residents in a broadcast to the country. “Do not take on burying somebody who has died from symptoms that look like Ebola—instead call health care workers because they know how to do it.” Museveni also encouraged residents to “avoid promiscuity” as that can be another conduit for the disease to travel.

And with good reason, too: Ebola is a highly infectious disease and is capable of being transmitted easily through the slightest of contacts. Although rare, Ebola is incredibly destructive and is often characterized by fever, weakness, pain in joints and muscles, sore throat and headaches. As the disease progresses in the body, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach pains severely dehydrate and weaken patients (not all, but many also will develop painful skin rashes all over the body and red eyes). Eventually, both internal and external bleeding will force the patient to succumb to the disease. Without a certain cure, the Ebola virus is able to kill the vast majority of those who become infected.

While it is still unknown where the disease originated, Uganda provides the perfect mix of elements for unstoppable growth. The landscape and climate allow the disease to breed and multiply into worrisome amounts. Dense rainforests harbor the disease and populations of bats help with the distribution. And because of these conditions, Uganda is no stranger to outbreaks—in 2000, many people in the northern region of the country were infected and 224 people died. In 2007, 42 were killed in western Uganda, and one 12-year-old girl died from the disease in 2011.

To make sure that this recent spout does not get out of hand, multiple global health organizations including members of the Ministry of Health of Uganda (MoH), the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the World Health Organization (WHO) are already on the grounds. “These outbreaks have a tendency to stamp themselves out, if you will, if we can get in and…stop the chain of transmission,” explained Tom Skinner, spokesman for the CDC.

Daily field research reports along with neighborhood-wide surveillance have been organized by the MoH, and the WHO are recommending that travelers, for now, skip their trips to Uganda. In order to better protect the people of Uganda (and all they come into contact with), these organizations must be encouraged to continue their work until the threat is minimized. To push WHO to continue its work in targeting and eliminating the Ebola outbreak in Uganda, sign the petition here.


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Kiss of Death: Can Lipstick Raise Risk for Diabetes?

The outlook for makeup keeps getting uglier and uglier.

Lead-laden lipstick. Skin creams made with mercury. A slew of animal-tested products on the market.

And now, a new report that link lipstick to increased rates of diabetes.

The connection lies in phthalates—esters of phthalic acid used to make plastic-based products more flexible, durable, and transparent. Lipstick, as well as other cosmetics, contains BPA (the phthalate Bisphenol-A), which, according to Cathryn Wellner of care2.com, tends to travel through the pores and into the bloodstream.

The recent study from Sweden’s Uppsala University tested 1,016 70-year-olds, 119 of whom had developed diabetes. After a round of blood tests, researchers discovered that seniors with higher levels of phthalates in their bodies also had higher rates of diabetes—almost twice the rates of those with lower levels.

The research confirms earlier literature on phthalates and diabetes. In 2005, Spanish and Mexican scientists found that BPA “disrupts pancreatic beta-cell function…and induces insulin resistance.” And in February of this year, researcher Angel Nadal of the Miguel Hernandez University in Spain found that BPA “triggers the release of almost double the insulin actually needed to break down food,” according to the Huffington Post.

“When you eat something with BPA, it’s like telling your organs that you are eating more than you are really eating,” said Nadal.

High insulin levels, in turn, often lead to weight gain and Type II Diabetes, two health epidemics that the United States is currently busy battling.

Even more frightening is that a little BPA can do a lot of damage health-wise.

“It takes so little of this chemical to cause harm,” says Frederick vom Saal, expert in endocrine disruptors at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

And according to WebMD researcher P. Monica Lind: “Even at relatively low levels of phthalate metabolites in the blood, the risk of getting diabetes begins to rise.”

BPA, of course, is found in more than just makeup; it’s also a common ingredient in other personal care items, as well as soda- and food-can linings. Since the chemical often goes unlabeled, consumers can ingest it unwittingly.

And BPA has also been found to contribute to more than just diabetes; various studies report it can increase risk for cancer, heart disease, and damage to the reproductive system.

Yet though the facts are stacked against BPA, regulators have done surprisingly little to limit its use. Health Canada only bans BPA in baby bottles, reports care2. And the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows BPA in packaged food containers, deeming evidence against phthalates “inconclusive.”

Corporations: 1, Consumers: 0.

Photo Credit: wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/File:Lipstick_army.jpg

Researchers Discover Flu Gene

A team of international researchers has discovered a genetic variation that can help explain why some people become very ill from the flu virus, while others only suffer minor symptoms.

The gene involved is from the interferon-inducible transmembrane protein family, and is called IFITM3.  People with a variation of the IFITM3 gene are more likely to become extremely ill when plagued by the flu.  According to Abraham Brass, MD, PHD, of Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston, IFITM3 enhances the body’s ability to fight off certain strains of the flu virus.

Dr. Abraham Brass and his team of researchers first discovered the antiviral role of IFITM3 in genetic screening tests that showed that the gene helped impede the growth of the flu virus, dengue virus, and the West Nile virus in cells.  However, researchers were still unclear as to the role of IFITM3 in living animals and humans.  Therefore, Paul Kellam, PHD, of the Sanger Institute in Cambridge, UK, and Brass, went on to study the effects of the influenza virus on mice that lacked the gene.  Kellam and Brass found that once these mice were introduced to the influenza virus, they suffered severe symptoms associated with the flu.  Specifically, in the mice lacking the gene, the influenza virus replicated more times and led to severe pneumonia.

Most importantly, after sequencing the genes of 53 patients who were admitted to the hospital for inpatient care due to the pandemic or seasonal flu, researchers found that a larger portion carried a variant of IFITM3 compared to the general population.  Researchers believe that this variant results in a shorter version of the protein, which leaves patients more susceptible to the flu.

This genetic discovery holds great implications for medicine in the future. New medicines and vaccines can be more easily created to target viruses such as H1N1 and the bird flu.  In addition, with genetic screening available, patients who carry the variant of the gene can now be treated with preventative vaccines.  Furthermore, with the discovery of the gene, researchers and professionals in the medical arena will have an advantage in the monitoring and controlling of future flu pandemics.

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/36128932@N03/3338845735/

Gene Therapy Used to Treat Cancer of the Blood

A new breakthrough in health technology is showing positive signs in effectively treating cancer.  Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania are looking to combat cancer by building an immune system perfectly geared to do just that.  The new process involves using the body’s own defense system to kill cancer cells—similar to the way the body is able to fight off infections and diseases and better protect itself against instances of disease in the future.

William Ludwig was 65 years old when he realized that his chances of recovering from his chronic lymphocytic leukemia were looking bleak.  Chemotherapy had stopped being effective, and a transplant of bone marrow was not in the cards for him.  It was then that Ludwig heard of a brand new therapy in the works at the University of Pennsylvania.  The experiment is a gene therapy which employs the use of deactivated HIV-1 (the virus that causes AIDS) being injected into patients suffering with cancer, with the hopes that the replicating qualities of the HIV-1 virus will lend itself to combatting the ever spreading cancerous cells.

Without being certain of the outcome, Ludwig signed on for the experiment that would hopefully succeed where all the others had failed. He described the move as a momentous last act—a type of “Hail Mary” for his life. It was the first time anyone used such a method as treatment…and, for William Ludwig, it worked.

It took place last year when Ludwig reported to doctors who  “removed a billion of his T-cells—a type of white blood cell that fights viruses and tumors—and gave them new genes that would program the cells to attack his cancer.”  These new T-cells were rebooted with a “gutted” version of HIV-1, making it non-lethal however nonetheless controversial.

The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-1, in the case of this experiment, was reinterpreted to cause no harm to the person in whom it was to be supplanted.  Researchers were just using the HIV-1 strain to take advantage of these fast-duplicating properties.  “Viruses are often used as carriers (or vectors) to insert DNA into other cells because that kind of genetic sabotage is exactly what viruses normally specialize in doing.” 

Dr. Carl June, who conducted the experiment, explains why HIV-1 was the best choice: “It incorporates the ability of HIV to infect cells but not to reproduce itself.”  Once back in the body, the newly outfitted T-cells are supposed to wage war on the cancerous cells, kill them, and leave the body better equipped in case of a relapse anywhere in the future.

Once the new T-cells were reinserted back into Ludwig through a drip, it took days before any signs appeared that showed that it was or was not working.  Ten days had passed before, as according to the New York Times, “all hell broke loose.”  Ludwig became overcome with chills began shaking.  His temperature went up as his blood pressure went down.  Doctors were then forced to move him to an intensive care and called in his family in case the situation deteriorated.  Weeks later when the fever had disappeared, they then discovered that so too had the cancer.  “I have my life back,” Ludwig relishes.

Another patient (whose name was not released) was contacted via email about his personal experience with the same gene therapy treatment.  After undergoing the same types of chills and fever, he “was sure the war was on—I was sure C.L.L. cells were dying.” That moment of sickness was precislely what they had thought.  The warrior cells had waged war on the cancer and the body was feeling the worst of it. 

For the moment, William Ludwig is in complete remission.  His treatment was a preliminary trial meant to scope out if the therapy was safe and in what size doses it should b given.  Whether this will be the default method of treatment is hard to tell as of now—additional research still needs to be done.  However, with these new findings, we may be on the brink of a new type of healing that cuts right down to the source of cancer, making for a cleaner less problematic cure.

Medieval Black Death: “Mother” of Present Day Plagues

Europeans were hoping for the best and expecting the worse when the Black Death slammed them during the middle of the 14th century…and the worst is what they got. Realizing that it was only a matter of time before the plague would reach their shores from Asia, Europeans kept busy by preparing themselves with the building of a cemetery near the Tower of London, in East Smithfield, to help with the projected volume of causalities.

But even that was not enough.  The cemetery in East Smithfield was able to accommodate for 2,400 bodies: a dent in the overall death toll which wiped out approximately 30 to 50 percent of the entire population of Europe (30 million people) in the five years that separated 1347 and 1351. 

Nowadays, we still see instances of plague popping up all over the world (killing around 2,000 people evey year), but it is nowhere near as devastating as it used to be.

Medieval Europeans believed that they were present to the end of the world, that the stories they heard about God’s wrath was actually coming true. But the plague is not the same as yesteryear. The flu now kills more people every year than the plague.  It is with this in mind that researches from a conglomerate of institutions including McMaster’s University of Canada, the University of Tubingen in Germany, and others from around the world set out to sequence the genome of the Black Death.

On October 13, their findings were published—marking the first time a genome of any ancient pathogen has been so, according to a statement by Canada’s McMaster’s University.

By taking samples of DNA from the teeth of those buried in East Smithfield (as well as samples of bacteria from the soil taken from the surrounding gravesite), scientists aimed to match up segments of this DNA with that of the DNA of the modern day plague. Once the genomes were compared, they found that there was no difference between today’s plague and the Black Death.

Like any host/parasite relationship, the plague has learned to change over time in order to ensure its own survival.  “If these pathogens are going to use us as a host over a long period of time,” explains Hendrick Poinar, a geneticist at McMaster University, “they can’t completely kill us.  There needs be an evolutionary way to maintain the pathogen but still keep the host alive.”

But the question still remained as to why the plague (a product of the Y. pestis bacteria) then was much more devastating than the plague is now.  The answer, as it turns out, may be as simple as a sign of the times.

At the time of the 14th century plague, Europe was already dealing with its own fair share of troubles.  As evidenced by tree-ring data, this time period experienced a noticeable drop in overall temperatures (4 to 6 degrees cooler than previous years).  Rain that never ended ruined harvests of crops and what food did survive was of poor quality.  “And all of a sudden,” continues Poinar, “the arrival of a new pathogen from the east and it all adds up to the perfect storm.”

This “perfect storm” was relentless and proved that, with conditions permitting, the severity of such a disease is exacerbated.

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Infertile Mosquito Study Means Good News for Malaria Research

Mosquitoes are the pesky little critters that bother people in the summer with itchy red bumps and for many in developing areas, malaria. Each year, malaria, an incapacitating parasitic disease spread through mosquitoes, affects more than 300 million people, resulting in almost 800,000 deaths. Africa is especially affected by this disease because, on average, a child dies from malaria every 45 seconds.

Currently, doctors treat malaria using a slew of medications such as chloroquine and quindine. The widespread use of chloroquine in regions like Southeast Asia and East Africa has led to a resistance to the drug and a more difficult time treating the disease. 

Medical researchers are working on eradicating malaria, but money is a limiting factor. People realize that better tools are needed to reach this goal. Recently, however, a leap in malaria research may solve the problem.  

A new study from Imperial College London, led by Dr. Flaminia Catteruccia, gives hope to the idea that scientists will be able to control mosquito populations. Researchers chose to focus on the Anopheles gambiae, the mosquito species that is most commonly responsible for malaria transmission in Africa.  The results from the study indicate that female mosquitoes cannot tell whether a male has sperm or not.

Researchers chose to focus on the Anopheles gambiae mosquito species because it is most commonly responsible for malaria transmission in Africa. The study involved observing isolated mosquito mating couples in a laboratory. Scientists looked for certain behaviors between the couples such as, whether the female laid the same number of unfertilized eggs as they would with a fertile male.

For the study, researchers created 100 spermless mosquitoes by putting a protein into regular eggs that interrupts the creation of testes in the male, thus making it impossible for the mosquitoes to produce sperm. Despite preventing the development of the testes, this did not interfere with sexual behaviors.  

Female mosquitoes only mate once in their lifetime, which is followed by a blood meal and then lays eggs.  Dr. Catteruccia’s study determined that after females mate with a sterile male, her behavior does not change, despite the eggs not being fertilized.

Originally, the researchers expected to see that the female mosquitoes had evolved a method for determining if mates are infertile so that they guarantee their eggs will produce offspring. They based this idea upon female fruit flies who are capable of mating with more than one partner.

“In the fight against malaria, many hope that the ability to genetically control the mosquito vector will one day be a key part of our armory. In order for these currently theoretical control strategies to work, we need to make sure that the insects continue to mate as normal, unaware that we have interfered with their sexual mechanisms. This study strongly suggests that they cannot tell the difference between a fertile and a spermless mate,” stated Dr. Catteruccia.

These results can contribute to malaria eradication because it can help to control the number of mosquitoes carrying malaria. The current idea is that the females would mate with males who have experienced a genetic change to make them infertile and then would not produce fertilized eggs.

Charles Godfray, a professor from the Zoology department at the University of Oxford and co-author on the study explained, “this is an exciting time with modern genetics providing a series of new ideas about how to control the major insect vectors of human disease, including the mosquito Anopheles gambiae — perhaps the single most dangerous insect species for mankind. A number of these techniques involve disrupting natural mating patterns and to get these to work a really good understanding of mosquito mating and reproduction is essential.”

Photo credit: cdc.gov/ncidod/dvbid/chikungunya/CH_Transmission.html

US Government Finds Two New Causes of Cancer

On Friday, the US Department of Health and Human Services warned consumers about two commonly used compounds, listing one as a carcinogen, and the other as a potential threat.

Officials added formaldehyde, frequently found in plywood, hair salons, and mortuaries, to the government’s Report on Carcinogens, while identifying styrene, a major component in bathtubs, boats, and foam packaging materials, as a possible hazard.

Formaldehyde has been linked to increased cases of myeloid leukemia, as well as cancers in the nasal passages and upper mouth. Styrene, on the other hand, has been associated with increased risk of leukemia, lymphoma, pancreatic cancer, esophageal cancer, and white blood cell damage.

Yet, government scientists made the distinction that while formaldehyde levels in common products threaten consumers, styrene amounts remain low, only endangering workers who build materials with the compound.

“A listing in the Report on Carcinogens does not by itself mean that a substance will cause cancer,” said the department in Friday’s announcement. “Many factors, including the amount and duration of exposure, and an individual’s susceptibility to a substance, affect whether a person will develop cancer.”

The compounds join six other newcomers to the list: aristolochic acid, in the “known to be a human carcinogen” category, and captafol, cobalt-tungsten carbide, specific inhalable glass wool fibers, ortho-Nitrotoluene, and riddelliine in the “reasonably anticipated” class.

Though aristolochic acid is often used in herbal treatments for arthritis and gout, and glass wool fibers can be found in insulation, the announcement fixated on formaldehyde and styrene for their widespread contact with consumers.

“It’s the smell in new houses, and it’s in cosmetics like nail polish,” said Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, of formaldehyde. “All a reasonable person can do is manage their [sic] exposure and decrease it to as little as possible. It’s everywhere.”

But consumers can limit their exposure to formaldehyde by buying pressed-wood products labeled as ULEF (ultra-low emitting formaldehyde) or NAF (no added formaldehyde), or avoiding them altogether.

Brawley also noted that for now, shoppers need not stay away from products containing styrene. The small levels found in consumer goods are generally too slight to cause cancer.

“I see no problem with Styrofoam cups,” he said in a telephone interview.

As a result of the findings, some industry leaders using formaldehyde and styrene have begun a quest to replace the carcinogens with friendlier materials. Most manufacturers, however, dispute the report, warning that the report is inconclusive and could potentially damage the economy.

“It will unfairly scare workers, plant neighbors and could have a chilling effect on the development of new products,” noted Tom Dobbins of the American Composites Manufacturers Association. “Our companies are primarily small businesses, and this could hurt jobs and local economies.”

On the other side of the spectrum, scientists are upset that industry politics have delayed the report’s release and have attempted to invalidate its conclusions.

“Industry held this report up for four years,” said Jennifer Sass of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “They have tried to create the impression that there was real scientific uncertainty here, but there’s not.”

She added in a blog: “The chemical industry fought the truth, the science, and the public — but, in the end our government experts came through for us, giving the public accurate information about the health risks from chemicals that are commonly found in our homes, schools, and workplaces.”

Click here for the full government report.

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E. Coli Outbreak Slams Europe

World Health Organization (WHO) officials have blamed a rare but highly infectious strain of E. coli for sixteen deaths and thousands of illnesses in Europe, spiking international health and economic concerns.

According to WHO’s most recent reports, nine patients in Germany have died of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a form of kidney failure that results from this strain, and six have succumbed to enterohemorrhagic E. coli, or EHEC, a type of E. coli that causes hemorrhaging in the intestines and can result in abdominal cramps and bloody diarrhea. An additional death in Sweden pushes the toll to sixteen so far.

Across Europe, the number of those affected by the outbreak is staggering. A whopping 1,115 cases of EHEC and 499 cases of HUS have been reported, bringing the total number to 1,614. 

The scare began in Germany, but has now spread to ten countries, including: Austria, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. On its website, the organization noted that “all these cases except two are in people who had recently visited northern Germany or in one case, had contact with a visitor from northern Germany.”

Though cucumbers from Almeria and Malaga, Spain were originally pinpointed as the source of the outbreak, international officials have stated that no definite cause has yet been identified.

“Numerous investigations are continuing into the source of the outbreak, which is still unclear,” WHO said in a website report.

Nevertheless, European Union vegetable farmers have been hit hard by the cucumber claim. A major economic player, Russia has imposed a ban on fresh vegetable imports from the European Union, a move dubbed “excessive compared to the danger” by the Polish government and “disproportionate” by Frederic Vincent, health spokesman of the European Commission.

But Russia stands by its decision.

“No one wants to get sick,” said Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich. “It is a natural protective measure taken in response to events that are happening in Europe today.”

And according to Yelena Skrynnik, Russia’s agriculture minister, Russians have little to lose. With only 11% of tomato imports and 5% of cucumber imports coming from European Union countries, Russia’s “volume of home-grown vegetable production combined with exports (from other countries) is sufficient to fully meet Russia’s domestic demand.”

Most of the fresh vegetables that Russia imports come from China and Turkey.

On Wednesday, the United Arab Emirates followed in Russia’s footsteps, and imposed a ban on cucumbers from Spain, Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands.

Plagued by the scrutiny, European farmers continue to feel the pinch, and have begun to demand compensation for lost business.

“We do not rule out taking action against authorities which have cast doubt on the quality of our produce,” said Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, deputy prime minister of Spain, “so action may be taken against the authorities, in this case Hamburg.”

Similarly, after asserting that the nation’s produce had been “completely cleared,” Carles Casajuana i Palet, Spain’s ambassador to Britain, noted that “there will have to be compensations” to farmers following the produce scare.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been monitoring the E. coli strain and has alerted state departments of the ongoing outbreak. Currently, the CDC is not aware of any cases of HUS or EHEC in the United States, but Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the CDC’s division of foodborne diseases notes that though the organization has “very little experience with this particular strain [it] has been seen before.”

Meanwhile, travelers to Germany are being urged to follow food safety precautions and to avoid raw cucumbers, tomatoes, and salad greens.

Photo Credit: wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/File:Vegetable_market_in_Heraklion.jpg

Bedbugs Found Carrying MRSA, Dangerous Drug-Resistant Bacteria

In Vancouver, scientists are analyzing the correlation between an outbreak of severe bacterial infections and a boom in bedbug infestations, according to a report initially released by The Associated Press.  The trends are thought to be related and are cause for growing concern in U.S. urban areas, where bedbug outbreaks have been on the rise

Hospital patients in British Columbia were afflicted by both attacks from bedbugs and infections from the dangerous MRSA bacteria (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).  The number of coincidences led doctors to intuit a causal relationship. 

Examination of five of the Canadian bedbugs revealed that three of the parasites were carrying MRSA, and two were carrying VRE, or vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus faecium, another slightly less dangerous form of drug-resistant bacteria. 

Though a definitive correlation has yet to be established between the blood-sucking bugs and the bacterial infections, researchers are examining the possibility that bedbugs have actually been spreading the germs.  The incidents occurred in poor neighborhoods where crowding is considered by investigators to be a contributing factor in the spread of both the infections and infestations. 

According to Dr. Marc Romney, co-author of the study released in Emerging Infectious Diseases, published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “it is not clear whether the bacteria originated with the bedbugs or the bugs picked them up from people who were already infected.”

Although not generally disease-carrying insects, a bedbug is hypothetically capable of transmitting infections to a human if it comes into contact with blood via broken skin.  The parasites are known for leaving itchy welts on skin after feeding, which are often scratched vigorously enough to break the skin’s surface, exposing the vulnerable human bloodstream. 

Of particular concern to doctors and researchers is the fact that bedbugs’ populations have increased dramatically in the U.S. since 1995.  As “hitchhikers,” the bugs spread easily through densely populated areas by latching onto clothing and skin and then repopulating upon relocation. 

If the trend of mass infestation continues, and further studies confirm that the bugs are the source of the infections, health care officials will have to prepare for a scenario entailing potentially life-threatening infections spreading rapidly throughout the country via bedbugs.

Social analysts have noted a trend of public hysteria over the bedbugs in response to increased media coverage of rising occurrences of infestations.  According to doctors, however, the public should be more concerned about contracting MRSA and other bacterial infections in places like hospitals rather than through bacteria-toting parasites. 

Contact with patients and workers in health care settings is the most common method by which Staph infections are spread.  The MRSA strain has developed a strong resistance to antibiotics, making treatments difficult and ineffective.  MRSA can affect the heart, lungs, bloodstream, and bones, and is potentially life-threatening when vital organs become infected.  More commonly, disfiguring, flesh-consuming abscesses will result from the contraction of MRSA microbes. 

According to The Washington Post, residents of inner-city neighborhoods, like the aforementioned Vancouver community, are likely “more susceptible to infection because their immune systems are compromised by chronic illness, drug use, crowding and poor nutrition.” 

While sound hygiene practices are a highly recommended method of preventing MRSA infections, they do not necessarily prevent bedbug infestations.  Because the bugs are so adept at relocating and reproducing, experts recommend things like buying new rather than secondhand furniture and mattresses.  Additionally, avoiding close contact with many different people and refraining from sharing personal items can help to ensure the bugs are not picked up and carried elsewhere. 

Many experts maintain that, though compelling, the research from Vancouver is inconclusive in that it fails to identify the origin of the bacteria between the patients and the parasites.

According to Robert Wirtz of the CDC’s Center for Global Health, this preliminary study “emphasizes the need for some further studies to determine the potential bedbugs have for transmitting these agents.  While the work was well done and it shows an association, it doesn’t establish that bedbugs are capable of transmitting the [Staph] bacteria.”

Further research, says Wirtz, should also reveal whether the bacteria were located internally or externally on bedbugs.  Those results could have major implications in solving the medical mystery. 

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