Monday, March 7, 2011

War and Pestilence

Hello and welcome to the first edition of The Political Bug!

My name is TC and before I get into the heart of what I want to talk about, I would like to say a few words about this blog: To begin with, I want to state that I am currently an entomology grad student at a mid-size university located somewhere in the Midwest (have fun figuring that out, ha, ha). I’m not naming it because I want to make sure that nothing I say in this blog, whether fair or unfair, comes back to negatively reflect on the department I work for. Secondly, I should admit that this is my first attempt at blogging. I got the idea to set it up from a discussion I was having with my department’s IT committee. I decided that this would be a great platform to practice writing on subject material that I am passionate about and to develop skills that will serve me well in my later career.
            The purpose of this blog is to locate an intersection between current events and how entomology impacts or is affected by these events. As an avid news reader, I keep abreast of what’s going on in the world. By reviewing news outlets, the scientific literature and adding my own insights, I hope to provide my readers a glimpse at the interconnectedness of the world, while providing objective and informed commentary.

            So, for the first entry of The Political Bug I chose to focus on what is currently going on in Libya and the general region of North Africa and the Middle East. While most people are already familiar with the situation, to make sure everyone is on the same page, here is a summary of events: On December 17, 2010, a Tunisian man named Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the loss of his vegetable cart to the police. His self-immolation and eventual death on January 4, 2011 sparked protests throughout Tunisia against the government of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, eventually forcing him to flee the country and establishing an interim government. From then, protests flared across the Middle East and North Africa as popular uprisings began to demand reform in Egypt, Algeria, Bahrain, Yemen and other countries. On February 11, Egypt’s long-time president, Hosni Mubarak ceded power in the face of overwhelming opposition. Now, international attention has shifted to Libya, which began experiencing its own popular uprising on February 15, 2011. Since then, what started out as a popular uprising has devolved into a bitter conflict between loyalists of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and populist rebels based in the eastern half of the country.
            The outcome of this conflict has been the sudden flood of refugees pouring over the boarders to Tunisia, and Egypt. Though early estimates had fleeing Libyans and foreign workers crossing the boarder at a rate of thousands a day, more recently this number has dropped, prompting concern that Libyan forces are preventing refugees from leaving the country. Like many other refugee cases, while the many evacuated men, women and children wait for the opportunity to be evacuated to a safe location, they are obligated to live in crowded camps where proper hygiene and sanitation is difficult to maintain. In these conditions, disease-borne illness can become a huge concern, especially those transmitted by insects.

            In an article publish in the Annual Review of Entomology, Dr. Philippe Brouqui (2011) gives a general discussion of the inter-related dynamics of poverty, political disorder, and arthropod disease vectors. While he covers a broad range of pests, Brouqui spends the majority of his time discussing lice and the diseases they vector. It was pretty eye-opening article and I would recommend reading for yourself. Among the more interesting facts was the proposed evolution of body lice (Pediculus humanus humanus) from the head louse (Pediculus humanus capitis) three separate times. This theory is backed up by the presence of three separate mitochondrial lineages for body lice, suggesting that branching occurred three separate times.
Now, what make body lice a particular concern is that they thrive in conditions where the sanitation is poor and humans are forced into close proximity to one another… like in refugee camps. With populations able to increase up to 11% per day, the body louse can become a serious pest in just a matter of weeks. The only factors working in the favor of the host are its aversion to extreme temperatures (they will die at 50°C) and that they are quick to dehydrate as blood is their only water source and they can only take in small quantities at a time.
            Of the three louse-borne diseases Dr. Brouqui discusses, the one that stood out as the most likely to cause sudden and widespread problems is typhus. Caused by the bacterium R. prowazekii, this disease can be highly lethal if untreated (up to 60% mortality), though mortality is widely dependent on the age of the infected person. The troubling aspect of the disease is that even after recovery, the patient may retain the R. prowazekii bacterium in his or her system for life. This can lead to a mild recurring disease called Brill-Zinsser disease, which is triggered by stress.
Few things can be considered more stressful than the sudden mass of humanity that exists in a refugee camp. If body lice are present, it could lead to the transmission of typhus to large swaths of the refugee population. The push by the international community to evacuate the refugees to their countries of origin or other accepting nations is probably the best tactic to prevent this from happening. It relieves the crowding and hopefully prevents previously infected individuals from being exposed long enough to the general population for body lice to pick up the R. prowazekii bacterium and spread it. With a combination of informed and well-managed quarantine policies and luck, disease outbreaks stemming from the Libyan conflict should be minimal. However, and I write this admitting that I am no epidemiologist, it does not seem like too far a stretch to say that the possibility of a international spike in reported cases of typhus or some other disease in the countries receiving refugees is probably pretty good.

Well, that concludes this installment of The Political Bug. I hope that you all enjoyed what I had to share and that it made you think just a bit more about how the drama of human geopolitical events and the menagerie of the insect world intersect on a daily basis. If you enjoyed this post or have a suggestion on how it can be improved, please leave a comment. This is an evolving project, so any bit of constructive criticism is helpful.
I am not certain of what schedule I can reasonably keep at the moment, but I am setting a goal of at least two entries a month and hoping to increase it to once a week once I work out the kinks. I will, however, be attending the North Central Branch of the Entomological Society of America meeting this coming week, so I hope to have my next entry relate to what I learn there. I thought that I would close this installment with a little trivia question for you all. No special reward for being first, sadly, other than the pride and satisfaction of guessing first. But here’s the question anyway:

“In a recent film adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, this character is portrayed as an amateur entomologist who wishes that he could put relatives into jars like bugs.”

Thanks again!


Sources of information

Paper cited in post:
Brouqui, Philippe. 2011. Arthropod-borne diseases associated with political and social disorder. Annual Review of Entomology. 56: 357-374.

Timelines for Middle East and North African revolts:

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