S. japonicum has a long history in China and is documented in reports more than two millennia old as a “water poison disease in streams contracted easily in spring and autumn … [caused by] minute and invisible sand lice that penetrate human skin when [a] man is bathing in streams”. At the end of the WWII, an estimated ten million people were infected with schistosomiasis in mainland China.
But in 1949, as the Communists were on the verge of absolutely annihilating General Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalists, this hidden enemy struck, this “unknown unknown” laying in wait among the stream-dwelling snails of southeast China.
The virus is the itinerant hippie backpacker of the arboviral group, having traipsed its way through nearly 40 countries and causing outbreaks throughout Africa, Asia, and Europe since a massive outbreak (1). For many years, chikungunya was localized to the African continent, but its recent history has been dramatic, characterized by geographic expansion ever eastwards. In early 2005, after years of sporadic outbreaks in Africa, chikungunya shifted to the Indian Ocean basin and south Asia. Over a period of two years, it caused massive outbreaks and infected nearly 2 million people, hitting large urban populations within India, Indonesia, Maldives, Myanmar and Thailand. In some regions of India, over 45% of the population was infected with the virus.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is home to one of the largest and most biologically diverse rain forests in the world, featuring an incredible variety of animals including bonobos, forest elephants, and mountain gorillas. The country is also the stomping ground of a staggering array of microbial organisms and the region is well known as a wellspring of novel human pathogens, some with big household names and others little known.
In 1981, parents living in southeast Georgia discovered an uncomfortable truth about “mechanical vectors” and disease transmission when an outbreak of bacterial conjunctivitis caused by Haemophilus aegyptius emerged in school-age children. In just over a month, from September 5 to October 16th, over 2000 cases of conjunctivitis were identified in 20 counties.
I know, I know: there you sit terrified, pondering what kind of world we live in where scientists could possibly ever think of christening an insect “eater of man.” It’s a heartless place we live in that plays pranks on you in the form of flesh-eating insects and I just don’t have an answer that would adequately explain the slings, arrows and screwworms of daily life. But let me tell you more about this little man-eater and get this day thoroughly ruined for ya.
The larva of Cochliomyia hominivorax. Note it’s spiral, screw-like shape with bristly ridges that it uses to barrel into living tissue.