Bats, Booze, Bugs, Birds, Blood and Bushmeat (ICEID 4)

Since I started electing to do blog coverage of scientific meetings, I’ve run into an unfortunate reality. On any meeting day, there are one or two presentations that either are strikingly newsworthy or fit into an ongoing topic that I’m already interested in, and that therefore I feel obliged to write about. That means I’m unable to cover dozens, sometimes hundreds, of other interesting papers and posters.

I feel bad about this, especially when authors stop what they are doing to talk to me. So here’s my admittedly insufficient remedy: a quick round-up of a few of the hundreds of intriguing presentations this past week at the biennial International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases. (Program here; it’s a pdf, abstracts not individually searchable.) Apologies to everyone whom I didn’t get to.

Clostridium difficile is not just a hospital problem. In 2010, in a 23-town area of Connecticut, 704 people developed the devastating intestinal infection C. diff in association with a hospital stay — but 183 people who had no connection to healthcare contracted C. diff as well. (“Community Associated Clostridium difficile Infection in Select New Haven, Connecticut, Area Towns: 2010,” C. Lyons et al.)

Nipah virus’s complex ecology includes bats … and booze. Four of the eight known cases of Nipah virus infection identified in northern Bangladesh between January and March 2011 arose from home-brewed hooch known as tari that is fermented from date-palm sap. The bats that transmit Nipah may have chewed on the palm fruit, or pooped on it. Occasionally, the brewers fished dead bats out of their open pots of moonshine, but sold it anyway. (“Nipah Transmission from Bats to Humans Associated with Drinking Traditional Liquor (Tari) in Northern Bangladesh, 2011,” M. Islam et al.)

Is Houston in the midst of an unrecognized dengue epidemic? Between 2003 and 2005, 47 people who were hospitalized in Houston for meningitis or encephalitis were found to have antibodies to dengue in their blood or cerebrospinal fluid, and two died. Only 16 percent of them had traveled to countries where dengue is known to circulate. (“An Outbreak of Dengue Fever in Houston, Texas, with Evidence of Autochthonous Transmission between 2003 and 2005,” K.O. Murray et al.)

Don’t use uncomposted manure on your garden, especially not if turkeys are hanging around. The owners of a ranch in Mendocino County, Calif. developed diarrhea after eating vegetables from their home garden, which they fertilized with raw manure from their draft horses. On examination, six of the horses and the family dog were sick as well. The likely culprit: a flock of 30 wild turkeys that contaminated the horses’ water trough, infecting them with Salmonella that survived in their manure and persisted in the garden soil for months. (“Isolation of Salmonella Oranienburg from Horses and Wild Turkeys on a Ranch in Northern California, and Contamination of the Family’s Edible Home Garden Following Raw Manure Application,”  M. Jay-Russell et al.)

Illegal wild-animal “bushmeat” is regularly smuggled into the United States. Between December 2005 and December 2010, more than 2,300 kilograms (5,070 pounds, 2.5 tons) of wild-animal meat — mostly form Africa and about half of it some species of rodent — was intercepted by the quarantine stations run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The total amount coming into the country is probably much larger since the CDC only has authority to intercept a few foods; most of that power belongs to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (“Is That a Rodent in Your Luggage? A Look into Bushmeat Importation into the United States—September 2005-December 2010,” T. R. Bell et al.)

Blood donors can transmit tick infections, even if they never felt ill. A leukemia patient in Atlanta developed the tickborne disease Erlichia ewingii after three transfusions of packed platelets from three donors, all originating at a blood bank in Florida. One donor was positive for the disease, though he had never noticed a tick bite and never felt ill. Eight people received his blood products. The disease has never been transmitted by transfusion before. (“Public Health Investigation of a Novel Ehrlichia ewingii Case Acquired from Leukoreduced Platelet Transfusion,” J. Matthias et al.)

Hospital food will make you sick. No, really. Between 1998 and 2008, there were 64 foodborne-disease outbreaks in US hospitals, leading to 1,365 illnesses and three deaths. The culprit food varied from meat to fish to leafy greens. The largest outbreak had 238 victims. The count of outbreaks is almost certainly an underestimate. (“Foodborne Disease Outbreaks in Hospitals, 1998–2008,” A.L. Nisler et al.)

Raising backyard poultry isn’t as healthy as it seems (at least not if you catch a disease from your chicks). In 2008, two clusters of Salmonella infections — 65 victims in one, 27 in the other — were traced back to mail-order chicks and ducklings intended to be starter birds for backyard flocks. They were the latest of more than 30 such outbreaks since 1990. (“Human Salmonella Infections Associated with Exposure to Live Poultry from Agricultural Feed Stores and Mail-Order Hatcheries,” J. Mitchell et al.)

Was the great flu of 1918 caused by more than one virus? Military records from Australian forces who fought in Europe in World War I add fuel to a long debate by showing that soldiers who got sick in the “first wave” of the epidemic (April-July 1918) were not protected from infection in the “second wave” (October 1918 to March 1919). Soldiers who fell ill in 1916 and 1917 with “purulent bronchitis” were not protected either, suggesting that they and the “first wave” victims were infected with different viruses than the victims in the second wave. (“How Many Influenza Viruses Were Circulating in 1918?,” G.D. Shanks et al.)

The organism that caused the massive E. coli outbreak in Europe last summer could pass person-to-person. Out of the thousands of people made sick in 2011 by E. coli O104 carried by fenugreek-seed sprouts, six were Americans — but only five of them traveled to Germany, the heart of the outbreak. The sixth appears to have caught the illness from a victim who had returned to the US. That E. coli strain was multi-drug resistant and very virulent: All six of the Americans had bloody diarrhea; four developed the most serious complication, hemolytic-uremic syndrome, and were hospitalized on ventilators; and one died. (“Outbreak of Enteroaggregative Shiga Toxin-Producing Escherichia coli O104:H4 in Europe and North America Associated with Sprout Consumption: Investigation of US Cases,” A. Mba-Jonas et al.)

(Image: Maryn McKenna)


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