They did not have a flu shot in 1918

The 1918 influenza epidemic infected half a billion people out of global population of 1.8 billion. Somewhere from fifty to one hundred million of those people died. Nearly everyone killed by the flu was under 65, with most being between 20 and 40, in whom the body’s immune system’s reaction was so severe that lung tissue was reduced to a thick mass and the victims drowned in their own phlegm. A perfectly healthy young person could fall sick in the morning and be dead that night, as a strong  immune system made the disease all the more deadly.

There was no flu shot in 1918, which means people in 1918 were just as vulnerable as people who didn’t get the shot this year. Fortunately the flu this year is vastly less deadly, and will probably only kill a few tens of thousands world wide. It’s a roll of the dice every year, but at some point  a flu virus will evolve that drops people like flies. Could be next year, could be in a hundred years. If you get the shot you lessen the odds of dying a rather quick and ghastly death. It’s up to you.


The great thing about naloxone (aka Narcan) is that it saves lives. It really is a miracle drug. You can overdose on heroin and the paramedic can administer it quickly and you are good as new. Which is what is so great about naloxone, if the shit you just scored is too strong and you OD then the paramedics can bring you back to life. And if the shit is too strong but you don’t OD, then it’s just a better high. So why not go for the bigger hit? Come on, live a little, especially as you won’t die a little. You probably won’t die at all. Naloxone just makes being a junkie more fun and far less dangerous. Overdose deaths have plummeted, even as overdoses skyrocket. That is no accident. There are more overdoses now because the odds of dying of an overdose have fallen by several orders of magnitude. I can’t see overdoses dropping anytime soon, either, not with all that naloxone around. Just the opposite, the number will keep rising. Why? Because medical science has removed natural selection from the process. There are no more Darwin Awards for junkies. Everyone lives, everyone gets high, and only the very unlucky die. Like maybe the ambulance gets a flat tire. Shit happens. But how often does an ambulance get a flat tire? We have made heroin addiction a much more viable lifestyle, though a more expensive lifestyle, wanting higher and higher highs. Much higher than ever before. Those pictures of parents OD’d in front of their children? Parents used to worry about ODing in front of their children. Not anymore. A few drops of naloxone (aka Narcan) in the nose and mommy and daddy are good as new, though in jail, and the kids have been taken away. Oops. But still, naloxone means anyone can be a junkie now. Who can? We can! Narcan. Ask your druggist.


Contagious cancer

In shellfish, the Live Science headline says, cancer can be contagious. “Recently scientists discovered that cancer cells can sometimes escape an organism and spread to others. These cells are clones that are nearly identical to the originals, save for mutations that might have popped up since they diverged from the initial cancer cells.”

Genetic analysis of the cancers and their hosts revealed that in nearly all of these cases, the genetic makeup of these cancer cells did not match those of their hosts. Instead, the cells came from other animals. Then comes the kicker. The finding suggests that transmissible cancers might be far more widespread than previously thought.

I knew that there was a contagious facial cancer afflicting Tasmanian devils (and in fact, decimating the population.) They nip each other in the face like you and I shake hands, but while we once spread warts (mom told us) they pass on a horrific cancer. And I didn’t know they’d found contagious cancers in dogs, spread by puppy love. But these involve intra-species transmission, though, one he dog to a she dog, or one snarling Tasmanian devil to another. The thing about this news story, though, is that they’ve found a cancer had spread from a clam to a mussel, that is, inter-species transmission. And while there’s no way you or I will ever catch this cancer–we are way too different from clams and mussels, even the dumbest of us–it does mean that we might be able, some day, to catch a cancer from another primate species, at least. Or maybe even from Fido, wagging his tail every time you look his way? But as no cancer has jumped from human to dog or vice versa in the 20-30K years that dogs (née wolves) and people have been hanging together (I assume we could have detected any such transmission genetically) it seems unlikely. Specific cancers are too tied into specific genetics to be able to just flit from one mammal species to a distantly related other, and people and dogs and all their carnivore and primate predecessors and their pre-carnivore and pre-primate predecessors have each been on their merry but separate evolutionary way for maybe 80 millions years, as dinosaurs still stomped about. And though both are mollusks, the last common ancestor of mussels and clams existed over 480 million years ago. Yet half a billion years later a clam can “catch” cancer from a mussel. A half billion years is an incredibly long time, both in terms of deep time and genetics.

We might catch the same sort of cancer from the same carcinogen as a dog, but it’s highly unlikely a dog’s cancer cell could settle amid our healthy people cells and metastasize. But here a cancer in mollusks that has done just that. No one knows how, though there is one revolting hypothesis that it comes in excrement that floats on in with sea water, a mussel leukemia transmitted in the way we transmit cholera, though all we ever did was drink and bathe in the water, while mussels eat and breathe it. The sea is their air. Imagine breathing in cholera laden air, as if all the old ideas of bad air causing epidemics (“malaria” comes from the Italian for bad air, mal aria) were true. Perhaps that is how this cancer (a mussel leukemia) spreads. Not that the mussels are thinking about it. But I am, and the entire idea is creepy. You have to wonder how often this happens. In a small population a contagious cancer could theoretically push a species to the point of no return. Perhaps even a hominid species. What have the evolutionary implications been over the past half billion years as cancers crossed from one species to another closely related species? Has genetic variation been driven, in some small sense, by mutations that allowed an individual to fend off the wandering cancer cells from a closely related species that had devastated his otherwise identical siblings?

Thinking about cancer is bad enough. But thinking about contagious cancer gives me the willies. Change the subject, please.


[c. 1998]

The good news is that ground squirrel fleas are pretty species specific and you get bit by standing close to a vast ground squirrel colony and snapping pictures of the little devils to try out the autofocus of your new camera. The bad news is that if you are stupid enough to do so, you’ll itch to learn everything there is to know about ground squirrel fleas. Or any kind of fleas.

Your dog fleas are probably cat fleas. Human fleas are no longer that popular anymore, and with youngsters waxing pubic hair off with abandon, their little nature preserves are on the endangered list, at least in Los Angeles. Los Angeles has always been hip to fleas. As has all of California. The Spanish certainly were. Pulgas–fleas–pops up all over the map in this state. There was a whole Rancho de los Pulgas up in the Bay Area, one of the original Spanish land grants. Rich people live there now, making big money from little circuits no bigger than a flea. Not far away, ground squirrels host fleas that still carry the bubonic plague.

As scary as that name sounds, it is not the same plague that swept through Europe in the 1300s. That was a rat driven plague, the plague spreading to the human population because rats infected by the bacteria (Yersinia pestis) died and forced the rodent fleas to bite people, something they no doubt found distasteful but in a famine any host will do.

I don’t know who the fleas bit after all their human hosts died. Maybe no one, and they starved to death in little flea droves, hence ending the plague. It’s interesting that some parts of Europe were untouched by plague. Poland was spared almost entirely. But in other places–especially along the northern Mediterranean coast–the land was swept clean of humanity. You never know about fleas.

Think of it… Fleas had been feeding off rats happily for ages when somehow they became infected with the Yersinia pestis bacteria which, transferred from the flea’s stomach to the bloodstream of the rat, promptly killed the rat. Then the fleas, starving, leapt onto the next most common mammal, people, and killed them off. That left the fleas hostless and at the mercy of the frigid European winters. Death came quickly. And when fleas died, Yersinia pestis died with it.  The Black Plague was a disaster for everyone involved. People, rats, fleas and bacteria, everybody. Not a good business model.

Without doing any research at all, and in the true spirit of the Internet, I wonder what triggered this whole catastrophe. Maybe Yersinia pestis had been in rat guts for ages, but there’d been a genetic mutation–bacteria mutate at an astonishing rate–that suddenly rendered one gnarly. The flea it occupied then killed its rat host. Oops. The flea jumped ship. Another rat died. Meanwhile said flea was reproducing with the usual abandon, each baby flea carrying the mutated Yersinia pestis, and each killing its rat host. Every time a rat died the flea had to find another rat, and on and on. Soon rats are dying all over the place. Then people. I should mention that In people the plague could turn pneumonic, that is spread simply by coughing, no flea bite required at all, like a bubonic flu*. Then the thing really took off. All because some gene mutated just once in a Yersinia pestis . Again, I profess no expertise in this whatsoever. But this is the internet.

Or it could have been a parasite. I don’t mean the flea as a parasite, but something parasitizing the flea, a parasite within a parasite. Parasites make their hosts do strange things. Even a parasite with a bacterium for a host. Or maybe it was a virus that caused a change in the DNA of Yersinia pestis which rendered it fatal to rats and people. Again, this is baseless extrapolation, but this is the internet, and the weirdness of nature is fun to think about. But enough of this.

I think about fleas and I think about plague and am filled with terror. Then I remember that one of the Rothschilds, with all her money, was the greatest flea-ologist ever. Ever. She wasn’t even an entomologist (or more specifically, a siphonapterist), she just had a thing about fleas. Imagine her vast but tiny little collection. Imagine a Rothschild, with all her money, bounding after a flea bounding. The rich are different from you and I.


* I’m leaving out the rarer septicemic variant, as it is simply too ghastly to think about.