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  • Richard Conniff

  • Reviews for Richard Conniff’s Books

    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Archive for the ‘The Great Deliverance’ Category

Lyme Disease? Apply 30 Live Ticks and Call Back in the Morning.

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 15, 2014

The deer tick, Ixodes scapularis

Soon to be available by prescription? The deer tick, Ixodes scapularis

Anyone who has admired the modern medical use of leeches to ease the reattachment of grafts, or maggots to clean infected wounds (anyone?) has gotta like this.  Lyme disease researchers are working on a diagnostic test that requires applying up to 30 live ticks to a human patient.

I am especially excited about the new test because I live in Old Lyme, CT, which is Ground Zero for the Lyme Disease epidemic.  Our high school robotics team actually calls itself the Techno Ticks.  Go, Mighty Arthropods!  Bite, Bite, Bite!

Go, Ticks!

Go, Ticks!

I’ve had the disease two or three times, as have most members of my family.  We know the symptoms pretty well, and the available test are spectacularly unreliable.  So we just call up the family doctor, describe the fatigue, the headaches, the bull’s-eye rash (sorry, I mean erythema migrans), and start right in on our doxcycline.

But now cutting edge medicine promises a more reliable technique for answering the great positive-negative question, in the form of xenodiagnosis.  The study reports that volunteers agreed to be bitten by up to 30 ticks at a time.  (What we call “going outside.”)  And the procedure was “well tolerated by volunteers.”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work.  (But, hey, it was kind of fun.)  Here’s the press release:

In a first-of-its-kind study for Lyme disease, researchers have used live, disease-free ticks to see if Lyme disease bacteria can be detected in people who continue to experience symptoms such as fatigue or arthritis after completing antibiotic therapy. The technique, called xenodiagnosis, attempts to find evidence of a disease-causing microbe indirectly, through use of the natural disease-carrier — in this case, ticks. It was well tolerated by the volunteers, but investigators could not find evidence Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues, The Great Deliverance, The Primate File | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

A Forgotten Pioneer of Vaccines

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 7, 2013

Jeryl Lynn Hilleman with her sister, Kirsten, in 1966 as a doctor gave her the mumps vaccine developed by their father.

Jeryl Lynn Hilleman with her sister, Kirsten, in 1966 as a doctor gave her the mumps vaccine developed by their father.

This is a piece I wrote for today’s New York TimesIt briefly appeared in the the front page online, then the world righted itself, and it gave way to an item about Ru Paul, and then one about Madonna.

We live in an epidemiological bubble and are for the most part blissfully unaware of it. Diseases that were routine hazards of childhood for many Americans living today now seem like ancient history. And where every mother could once identify measles in a heartbeat, even the best  hospitals have to call in their eldest staffers to ask: “Is this what we think it is?”

To a remarkable extent, we owe our well-being, and in many cases our lives, to the work of one man and to events that happened 50 years ago this spring.

At 1 a.m. on March 21, 1963, an intense, irascible but modest Merck scientist named Maurice R. Hilleman was asleep at his home in the Philadelphia suburb of Lafayette Hill when his 5-year-old daughter, Jeryl Lynn, woke him with a sore throat. Dr. Hilleman felt the side of her face and then the telltale lump beneath the jaw. He tucked her back into bed, about the only treatment anyone could offer at the time.

For most children, mumps was a nuisance disease, nothing worse than a painful swelling of the salivary glands. But Dr. Hilleman knew it could sometimes leave a child deaf or otherwise permanently impaired.

He alerted the housekeeper that he was going out (his wife had recently died of breast cancer) and then drove 20 minutes to pick up proper sampling equipment from his laboratory. Back at the house, he woke Jeryl Lynn long enough to swab the back of her throat and immerse the specimen in a nutrient broth. Then he drove back to store it in the laboratory freezer.

The name Maurice Hilleman may not ring a bell. But today 95 percent of American children receive the M.M.R. — the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella  that Dr. Hilleman invented, starting with the mumps strain he collected that night from his daughter.

It was by no means his only contribution. At Dr. Hilleman’s death in 2005, other researchers credited him with having saved more lives than any other scientist in the 20th century. Over his career, he devised or substantially improved more than 25 vaccines, including 9 of the 14 now routinely recommended for children.

“One person did that!” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, a longtime friend of Dr. Hilleman’s and now director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “Truly amazing.”

As a young man in Montana, Maurice Hilleman had intended only to become a manager at the J..C. Penney store. He turned out not to have the perfect retail personality. (Asked later in life what he was proudest of in his career, he replied, “Being able to survive while being a bastard.”)

He went on to spend most of his career at Merck, but the corporate personality also eluded him. He had a sailor’s vocabulary, and his brand of peer review often included the phrase Read the rest of this entry »

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Into the Heart of the Outbreak (Guardians Against a Global Pandemic Part 1)

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 17, 2013

May 2, 2013: Flight 801  Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to New York's JFK. Aboard: 368 souls and a virus that, over the next 10 years, will kill 20 million people. Are you prepared?

May 2, 2013: Flight 801 Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to New York’s JFK.
Aboard: 368 souls and a virus that, over the next 10 years, will kill 20 million people. Are you prepared?

This is a story I wrote for the May issue of Men’s Health magazine:


Last September, a 49-year-old Qatari man who’d recently traveled to Saudi Arabia was hospitalized in Doha with a nasty respiratory illness. He deteriorated rapidly, and doctors promptly airlifted him to a London hospital, where he wound up on life support with kidney and lung failure. From respiratory tract samples, investigators soon teased out an unknown coronavirus.  It turned out to be the same virus that had just killed an otherwise healthy 60-year-old in Saudi Arabia.

For one tense moment, epidemiologists thought they might be witnessing a replay of the devastating 2003 SARS epidemic, also brought on by a coronavirus. But the threat this time looked worse: Three million people were about to descend on Saudi Arabia for the hajj, a Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca already well known for the overnight global redistribution of illnesses via passenger jet.

Disease detectives of all specialties caught the next available flights into the heart of the potential outbreak. Epidemiologists tracked down anyone who had been even remotely associated with the victims. Veterinarians wearing protective gear went to a farm that one of the victims had visited and took samples from hundreds of domestic and wild animals to identify the species from which the virus had jumped to humans. This effort, unseen by the public but involving hundreds of experts around the world, soon established that the disease did not, in fact, spread easily from one person to another. The hajj wasn’t a hot zone after all.

It was a lucky break. As of early March, the new virus had Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues, The Great Deliverance | Leave a Comment »

Murdered at 14 for Fighting to End Polio

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 7, 2013

Farzana

I’ve been looking for a photograph of Farzana Bibi, a 14-year-old girl shot and killed last month by Islamic extremists in Pakistan because she was working on a polio eradication team.

And here she is.

Farzana  joins a long line of medical martyrs who have died to free us from epidemic diseases.  But few have died so needlessly, or with victory so near:  Polio, which once crippled and killed millions, was on target to be eradicated from the Earth sometime later this year.

As a reminder, here are a couple of news account describing the killings, and also suggesting why eradication probably won’t happen soon:

A volunteer who was shot during a wave of attacks on polio-vaccination teams has succumbed to his injuries in Pakistan.  That brings to nine the number of health workers killed since December 17.

Officials say the student volunteer died on December 20, a day after he was shot while helping distribute polio drops in the northwestern city of Peshawar.

Five of the nine health workers killed were women.

The bloodshed prompted United Nations agencies to suspend their campaign against polio in Pakistan after the attacks.

The Islamic terrorist group Jundullah claimed responsibility, telling RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal that polio vaccination is forbidden in Islam.

Pakistan is one of only three countries where the disease is endemic.

I only have partial information on the victims, but here are the sad additions to the list of Medical Martyrs I started a few weeks ago.  Corrections or additional information are welcome:

Akhtar, Naseema (1977-2012), killed by terrorists in Karachi, Pakistan, for working with the World Health Organization to save her country from polio,  age 35.

Bibi, Farzana (1992-2012), killed by terrorists in Peshawar, Pakistan, for working with the World Health Organization to save her country from polio, age 14

Last Name Unknown, Fahmida (1992-2012), killed by terrorists in Karachi, Pakistan, for working with the World Health Organization to save her country from polio,  age 20

Last Name Unknown, Kaniz Fatima (1992-2012), killed by terrorists in Karachi, Pakistan,  for working with the World Health Organization to save her country from polio, age 20

Last Name Unknown, Madiha (1993-2012), killed by terrorists in Karachi, Pakistan, for working with the World Health Organization to save her country from polio,  age 19.

Mehsud, Umer Farooq, (1982-2012),  killed by terrorists in Karachi, Pakistan, in Peshawar, Pakistan, for working with the World Health Organization to save her country from polio, age 30.

Posted in The Great Deliverance | Leave a Comment »

The Medical Martyrs

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 25, 2012

As an afterthought, when I was writing The Species Seekers, I included a listing of people who had died in the quest to discover new species.  The Wall of the Dead: A Memorial to Fallen Naturalists turned out to be one of the most popular features of the book.  It’s also part of a current exhibition at The British Natural History Museum’s annex in Tring, and it’s a constant object of reader interest at this blog.  Since I posted it here early in 2011, more than 28,000 people have visited (and considerably added to) The Wall of the Dead.

Now I’m working on a new book, The Great Deliverance, about the fight to understand and treat epidemic disease.   This topic may seem like a reach for many readers who know me mainly as a writer on natural history.  But understanding disease has always been a matter of understanding that our own bodies are part of the natural world, and the natural world is part of our bodies.  We are a habitat,  though often against our will.

Many doctors, nurses, and researchers have given their lives to identifying and defeating the pathogens that have routinely killed us.  So I am now beginning to put together a new list, under the title The Medical Martyrs.  As with The Wall of the Dead, I invite readers to send me names of their colleagues, friends, loved ones, and heroes who died while working to stop epidemic disease.  I’ve drafted a few examples to get things started.  Here’s the format:

Last name, first name (year of birth-death), brief description of specialty and also of the occasion and cause of death, as well as the age at death.  Please include links to articles, obituaries, web sites, or other useful biographical material.   I’ll get your suggestions up onto the list at frequent intervals.

And here are a few examples of medical heroes who gave their lives in the quest to control epidemic disease:

Akhtar, Naseema (1977-2012), killed by terrorists in Karachi, Pakistan, for working with the World Health Organization to save her country from polio,  age 35.

Bibi, Farzana (1992-2012), killed by terrorists in Peshawar, Pakistan, for working with the World Health Organization to save her country from polio, age 14

Last Name Unknown, Fahmida (1992-2012), killed by terrorists in Karachi, Pakistan, for working with the World Health Organization to save her country from polio,  age 20

Last Name Unknown, Kaniz Fatima (1992-2012), killed by terrorists in Karachi, Pakistan,  for working with the World Health Organization to save her country from polio, age 20

Last Name Unknown, Madiha (1993-2012), killed by terrorists in Karachi, Pakistan, for working with the World Health Organization to save her country from polio,  age 19.

Jesse Lazear

Lazear, Jesse W. (1866-1900), a Johns Hopkins Hospital physician, joined the U.S. Army and served with Walter Reed on the commission to investigate yellow fever in Cuba.  He confirmed the theory that mosquitoes transmit the disease.  But without telling his colleagues he experimented on himself with infected mosquitoes, and died of the disease, age 34.

Matthew Lukwiya

Lukwiya, Matthew (1957-2000), medical director of a hospital in Gulu, Uganda, during an Ebola outbreak.  He was awakened when none of the other staff would touch a patient who had fallen out of bed, coughing blood.  Lukwiya put on most of his protective gear, but not a face shield to protect his eyes, and lifted the patient back into bed.  He contracted Ebola himself and died soon after, age 43.  At the funeral of a colleague in the same outbreak, he had declared, “It is our vocation to save life. It involves risk, but when we serve with love, that is when the risk does not matter so much. When we believe our mission is to save lives, we have got to do our work.”

 Mehsud, Umer Farooq, (1982-2012),  killed by terrorists in Karachi, Pakistan, in Peshawar, Pakistan, for working with the World Health Organization to save her country from polio, age 30.

Janet Parker

Parker, Janet (1938-1978), a medical photographer at the University of Birmingham Medical School, contracted the world’s last case of smallpox and died, age 40, when improper procedures caused the release of a smallpox strain being used for research one floor below her darkroom.

Schnitker, Paul (1942-1969), a doctor who graduated from Harvard Medical School, was the only member of the Epidemic Intelligence Service, an elite branch of the Centers for Disease Control, ever to die in action.  He was traveling to serve as a medical advisor to refugee relief efforts during the Biafra civil war, but missed his scheduled flight.  The plane he caught instead from London to Lagos, Nigeria, was destroyed on landing by a bomb.   According to his brother John, “My parents believed he was killed by the very people he was sent to help.”  Schnitker was 27 years old.

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