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    Ending Epidemics: A History of Escape from Contagion: “Ending Epidemics is an important book, deeply and lovingly researched, written with precision and elegance, a sweeping story of centuries of human battle with infectious disease. Conniff is a brilliant historian with a jeweler’s eye for detail. I think the book is a masterpiece.” Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer

    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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Posts Tagged ‘Osama bin Laden’

Polio: The Hidden Cost of the Hunt for Bin Laden

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 10, 2013

During the search for Osama bin Laden, the CIA suffered a lapse of judgment that continued last week to have tragic repercussions.

The mistake happened in March 2011 when CIA investigators set up a sham vaccination program in the Abbottabad neighborhood where they suspected the Al Qaida leader was in hiding.  The idea was to get DNA from the children in the bin Laden compound to see if it matched the DNA of a bin Laden sibling who had died in Boston.

As an inadvertent result, Muslim extremists regard any vaccination program as some kind of Imperialist plot, no matter that it actually protects the health of their children.  In  December, extremists executed nine polio vaccination campaign workers in Pakistan.  And last week, the same thing happened in Nigeria.  The victims in both cases were mostly women.

But we may all eventually be the victims.

There are windows of opportunity for eradicating epidemic diseases, and the dismaying thing is that these windows can close.  Tuberculosis was on the verge of eradication in the last decades of the twentieth century.  But the delayed and inadequate response to AIDS gave the disease fresh breeding ground, in the lungs of patients with impaired immune systems.  So tuberculosis is now resurgent, with 8.7 million new cases and 1.4 million deaths per year.

It’s increasingly likely the same will happen with polio.  The effort to eradicate the disease has reduced incidence of polio to just three countries–Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan–and the number of cases to just 200 a year worldwide.  But getting there costs $1 billion a year.  If the World Health Organization cannot keep up the pressure, then the computer models say there will be 200,000 cases 10 years from now.   “It’s either going to zero,” says a WHO analyst, “or it’s going to come all the way back.”

Given the devastation polio can cause, the CIA investigators hunting bin Laden may have cost us far more than they gained.

Here’s a report from The New York Times:

In a roundabout way, the C.I.A. has been blamed for the Pakistan killings. In its effort to track Osama bin Laden, the agency paid a Pakistani doctor to seek entry to Bin Laden’s compound on the pretext of vaccinating the children — presumably to get DNA samples as evidence that it was the right family. That enraged some Taliban factions in Pakistan, which outlawed vaccination in their areas and threatened vaccinators.

Nigerian police officials said the first shootings were of eight workers early in the morning at a clinic in the Tarauni neighborhood of Kano, the state capital; two or three died. A survivor said the two gunmen then set fire to a curtain, locked the doors and left.

“We summoned our courage and broke the door because we realized they wanted to burn us alive,” the survivor said from her bed at Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital.

About an hour later, six men on three-wheeled motorcycles stormed a clinic in the Haye neighborhood, a few miles away. They killed seven women waiting to collect vaccine.

Ten years ago, Dr. Larson said, she joined a door-to-door vaccination drive in northern Nigeria as a Unicef communications officer, “and even then we were trying to calm rumors that the C.I.A. was involved,” she said. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars had convinced poor Muslims in many countries that Americans hated them, and some believed the American-made vaccine was a plot by Western drug companies and intelligence agencies.

Since the vaccine ruse in Pakistan, she said, “Frankly, now, I can’t go to them and say, ‘The C.I.A. isn’t involved.’ ”

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Sliming Osama

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 3, 2011

Under the sea: Osama makes new friends

This morning, I received a kind note from a reader, who found herself thinking oddly about Osama bin Laden after reading my book Spineless Wonders: Strange Tales from the Invertebrate World:

I just read Spineless Wonders in December, and enjoyed it very much.  Some of the creatures described were new to me, and I was amazed to find myself feeling sympathetic for the tarantulas.  However, the book led to a most unpleasant flashback when I awoke this morning, to the radio news announcing that the body of Osama bin Laden had been “buried at sea”.
My first coherent thought was not about peace or justice or the war on terrorism.  It was, “Hagfish!!!”
I’m afraid that in this case, I wish the hagfish well, and hope they will get some protein and profit from the deceased.
Thank you very much for your outstanding writing; I am looking forward to reading your other titles.

Hagfish, for those of you who have never had the strange pleasure of making their acquaintance, are scavengers on the ocean bottom.   Sometimes, fishermen encounter them in their catch, and here’s what I wrote in Spineless Wonders:

It is a disheartening sight for fishermen, touching some source of horror beyond mere economic loss.  One fisheries expert has attributed this horror to the slime itself:  “Being worthless … the hag is an unmitigated nuisance, and a particularly loathesome one owing to its habit of pouring out slime from its mucous sacs in quantity out of all proportion to its small size.  One hag, it is said, can easily fill a 2-gallon bucket, nor do we think this any exaggeration.”

But a far graver problem with slime eels, it seems to me, is that they make the idea of burial at sea so much less appealing.  Once having seen them, seafarers must suffer forever from foreboding that if they go down with the ship (or without it), slime eels will be waiting for them at the bottom.  Martin Cruz Smith employed this idea to fine effect in his novel, Polar Star, in which a Soviet murder victim returns from the bottom in a trawler net.  As investigators examine a knife wound in the victim’s gut, they notice a protruding “length of intestine, purplish-gray and slick …” which gradually becomes recognizable as a slime eel:  “The eel’s head, an eyeless stump with fleshy horns and a puckered mouth, whipped from side to side against Zina Patiashvili’s stomach; then the entire eel, as long as an arm, slid seemingly forever out of her, twisted in mid air …” and landed at the examining physician’s feet.

This scene is a figment of Smith’s imagination.  No one has ever found a human corpse being scavenged from within by slime eels.  In truth, most researchers believe that even fish corpses are a relative rarity in the diet of slime eels, which are more likely to subsist on worms, shrimp, and other small sea-bottom creatures.  But it is at least conceivable that hollowed-out shipwreck victims have at times drifted across the bottom like Michelangelo’s self-portrait as a sack of skin on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel …

And now we can hope that Osama bin Laden is meeting this fate, in his element among the slime eels.

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