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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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Posts Tagged ‘Prevention’

How to Prevent the Pandemic Next Time

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 5, 2020

Nipah virus

This is a piece I published in 2013, and–surprise!–major governments did not institute the preventive measures suggested by the experts here. In fact, not much has changed, except that half the world is now under lock-down in a desperate, last-ditch bid to stop the spread of COVID-19. The recommendations here still matter. The challenge is to remember and finally act, after the all-clear.

by Richard Conniff

In 2007, in a rural district in northwestern Bangladesh, a man fell ill with fever, followed by fatigue, headache, and coughing. His wife tended to him at home over the next four days, feeding him and wiping froth and saliva from around his mouth. When he began to have trouble breathing, a cousin and a friend rode to the doctor’s office with the patient sandwiched between them on a motorcycle. The next day, they transported him via microbus to the nearest hospital, where he quickly died. All five people in close contact with the patient in his final days soon came down with the disease, known as Nipah virus, and the wife and cousin also died.

It was a small tragedy at the other end of the Earth, and in the grand scheme of things hardly worth noting.

But a new [2013] article in the journal Antiviral Research argues that we ought to pay close attention, and not just for philanthropic reasons. Without intervention by the developed world, says Stephen P. Luby, M.D., of Stanford University, a case like this is how the next great plague could leap from wildlife and quickly turn up in our own homes. “Bring out the dead” could become the catch phrase of 2020, or 2025.

Bangladesh is among the poorest and most densely populated nations in the world, says Luby, who worked there for eight years before returning to the United States in 2012. But when he talks with people back home about poor clinical care there, and the absence of basic infection-control measures, “they see it as an issue only for Bangladesh.” Luby wrote his article to show just how deadly that sort of thinking could be.

Indian flying foxes in Madhya Pradesh (Photo: Charles J. Sharp)

Nipah virus was first discovered in 1998, and outbreaks now occur almost every year in Bangladesh and just across the border in India. As with SARS, Ebola fever, and a dismaying variety of other emerging diseases, Nipah virus comes from bats—in particular, the Indian flying fox, Pteropus giganteus. Luby was part of the team that figured out how the disease gets from bats to humans.

In Bangladesh, date palm sap is a favorite treat. Collectors climb to the top of a date palm tree, shave the bark, and set a clay pot underneath to catch the sap. The bats can’t ordinarily penetrate the bark, but they’re quick to adapt to a new food source and, in the course of feeding on the sap, they often leave bat urine and droppings in the clay pot. People relish the sap as a seasonal delicacy, preferably fresh and raw, and they are generally unaware of the hazard of Nipah virus until symptoms begin.

About 70 percent of victims die. But so far, says Luby, the virus is not highly contagious. It spreads via the saliva mainly to people who care for a victim. So how realistic is the threat? That is, could Nipah virus cause a pandemic?

RNA viruses like Nipah “have the highest rate of mutation of any virus or living organism,” Luby writes, enabling them to adapt readily to new environments. He likens the possibility of a pandemic to what happened with another virus in the same family: Until about a thousand years ago, an early form of rinderpest was a problem only for cattle, buffalo, giraffes, and certain other ungulates. Then a mutation occurred and the new virus jumped from domestic livestock to humans. It also became fiercely contagious. Measles, as this terrifying new disease became known, went on to kill tens—if not hundreds—of millions of people worldwide, until a vaccine brought it under control in the 1960s.

To avoid a replay of that scenario, Luby wants the governments of the United States and the European Union to invest in infection control and other preventive measures in undeveloped countries like Bangladesh.  For instance, bringing a powdered detergent and proper hand-washing protocols to healthcare workers can cost less Read the rest of this entry »

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How Acting On a Hidden Environmental Threat Saves $11 billion

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 8, 2014


Prevention doesn’t come naturally to the human spirit. Even if we know better, paying the immediate cost often seems more daunting than the possibility of paying a much higher cost (death, say) at some unknown date in the future. This emotional disconnect is what makes it so hard to persuade people to eat less, exercise more, practice safe sex, or take action to prevent climate change.

Lately, the “why worry?” line of thinking has turned up in the debate over invasive species. If you think it’s hard making parents understand that their unvaccinated child could die from measles, just imagine how hard it is to convince them that they should also worry about, say, invasive beetles turning up in the backyard. To make prevention even less likely, some critics now argue that introduced species are often harmless, or in some cases beneficial, and that there are just too many of them to fight. At best, they say, we spend a great deal of money to slow down the invasion. But we can never stop it completely.

A new case study being published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology replies—if I may sum up the scholarship in a phrase—that this is a lot of crap. The coauthors look at the current poster child of invasive species, the emerald ash borer, a beetle with a glittering green carapace and a nasty habit of killing some of the most majestic trees lining the streets of North American cities, as well as in our yards and forests.

Emerald ash borers (also known as EAB) arrived from Asia by accident in the 1990s, and biologists first detected them in Detroit in 2002. In North America, they focus exclusively on ash trees (hence the name), and as their larvae bore into a tree, they block off its ability to transport nutrients and water.

Alarmed at the prospect of dying forests, the Nature Conservancy and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis launched a wide-ranging series of studies on the problem. “By 2003, at least 5–7 million ash trees were dead or dying in a six-county area of southeastern Michigan,” the authors of one such study wrote early this year, “and it was becoming apparent that EAB had the potential to devastate ash on a continental scale.”

The new study looks at the preventive measure undertaken by 70 signatory countries, including the United States, to slow or stop the invasion. ISPM15, as it’s known, requires manufacturers in international trade to treat wood pallets and wood crating (like the box holding your supermarket clementines). Treatment typically involves heat or fumigation with an insecticide, at a cost of about $1.50 per pallet. That added up to a whopping $437 million in 2005, the first year of implementation, with the expectation of continuing costs at a much lower level as pallets run through their typical six-year life span.

So was it a waste of money? Read the rest of this entry »

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