I found this great post on drug shortages that appeared in BMJ today. Among all of the other great gems in it, was this incredibly interesting article on the creation of a mechanical bloodletting device. Jean-Baptiste Sarlandière, a French anatomist and inventor, created the “mechanical leech”, a device intended to extract a controlled amount of blood from the body. Sarlandiere intended the device to replace leeches, which were subject to increasing demand, were becoming expensive, were difficult to cultivate, and were subject to shortages in the Netherlands, who was a large producer of leeches at the time.
A paper was written on the device back in 2009, and within there is a dataset of leech imports and exports to France, which includes data on the monetary value of leeches and public consumption. Of course, I couldn’t resist pulling this data out and doing something with it (despite having better things to do.)
Here is the data, pulled from yet another paper (Alexandre E Baudrimont, Adolphe J Blanqui, et al., Dictionnaire de l’industrie manufacturie`re, commerciale et agricole, Paris, J-B Baillière, 1833–1841, pp. 25–30.):
|Year||Number of leeches imported||Value in Francs||National consumption||Exports||Import export ratio||Value per leech|
Of course, I am fascinated with this. The number of leeches exported from France rose during this period as did the market price of each leech. Though the entire industry would eventually collapse because other medical advances of the nineteenth century would supercede it, it is clear that increased demand and expense led to innovation to create devices to replace it. I don’t know whether the “mechanical leech” led to the development of other medical devices, but would like to think that even batshit ideas like how swamp worms draw out blood to cure any and all medical conditions would lead to the creation of methods which do improve health.
At least that’s what we hope happens. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to join the Detroit Communities Reducing Energy and Water (use) project, focusing on Parkside, a subsidized housing community in Detroit, MI.
The project aims to help residents make changes to the electrical and plumbing infrastructure of their homes to reduce the energy costs. Residents in poor communities often live in housing that has old, inefficient and sometimes faulty electrical wiring, kitchen appliances and aging or damaged pipes, showers and toilets.
The University of Michigan School of Public Health has a community based participatory research project with the residents of Parkside, the Friends of Parkside, a local advocacy group.
We administered a survey on energy, housing conditions and health to about twenty residents who came to the event. Following the consumption of copious amounts of pizza, the goals of the study were explained to everyone in a group meeting and consent was obtained.
They then moved to another room and took the survey. Many of the residents were elderly, mostly women. All had interesting stories to tell about broken air conditioners, unresponsive maintenance crews, family, friends, kids…. everything you find in these kinds of surveys.
After they were done, they all got some ca$h and were provided with a temperature monitor so that we can better understand what they are experiencing in their homes during these hot summer months. We will then conduct a follow up survey to assess the impact of a home based educational program on energy use and health.
It had been a long time since I was involved in community and I was grateful to be a part of. Some people don’t like this kind of work, I really don’t understand what’s not to like about hanging out with survey respondents who feel invested in the project and their communities.
Not sure why but for some reason over lunch I got interested in old labor songs. This one was particularly bleak. Apparently, it is intended to be sung over “My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean.” As our administration erodes labor and environmental protections for the inexplicable sake of bringing back coal mining, it pays to have a look back at how bad it really was.
Song: My Children are Seven in Number
Lyrics: Eleanor Kellogg(1)
Music: to the tune of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean”
My children are seven in number,
We have to sleep four in a bed;
I’m striking with my fellow workers.
To get them more clothes and more bread.
Shoes, shoes, we’re striking for pairs of shoes,
Shoes, shoes, we’re striking for pairs of shoes.
Pellagra(3) is cramping my stomach,
My wife is sick with TB(4);
My babies are starving for sweet milk,
Oh, there as so much sickness for me.
Milk, milk, we’re striking for gallons of milk,
Milk, milk, we’re striking for gallons of milk.
I’m needing a shave and a haircut,
But barbers I cannot afford;
My wife cannot wash without soapsuds,
And she had to borrow a board.
This song was originally posted on protestsonglyrics.net
Soap, soap, we’re striking for bars of soap,
Soap, soap, we’re striking for bars of soap.
My house is a shack on the hillside,
Its doors are unpainted and bare;
I haven’t a screen to my windows,
And carbide cans do for a chair.
Homes, homes, we’re striking for better homes,
Homes, homes, we’re striking for better homes.
They shot Barney Graham(5) our leader,
His spirit abides with us still;
The spirit of strength for justice,
No bullets have power to kill.
This song was originally posted on protestsonglyrics.net
Barney, Barney, we’re thinking of you today,
Barney, Barney, we’re thinking of you today.
Oh, miners, go on with the union,
Oh, miners, go on with the fight;
For we’re in the struggle for justice,
And we’re in the struggle for right.
Justice, justice, we’re striking for justice for all,
Justice, justice, we’re striking for justice for all.
Currently, I’m doing a research project on snakebites and found this gem in the literature, of which there is little:
“Snake bites are common in many regions of the world. Snake envenomation is relatively uncommon in Egypt; such unfortunate events usually attract much publicity. Snake bite is almost only accidental, occurring in urban areas and desert. Few cases were reported to commit suicide by snake. Homicidal snake poisoning is so rare. It was known in ancient world by executing capital punishment by throwing the victim into a pit full of snakes. Another way was to ask the victim to put his hand inside a small basket harboring a deadly snake. Killing a victim by direct snake bite is so rare. There was one reported case where an old couple was killed by snake bite. Here is the first reported case of killing three children by snake bite. It appeared that the diagnosis of such cases is so difficult and depended mainly on the circumstantial evidences.”
When does a person “ask” someone to “put his hand inside a small basket harboring a deadly snake?” Does that ever happen? Apparently so.
Apparently a man killed his three children using a snake.
It gets better:
“In deep police office investigations, it was found that the father disliked these three children as they were girls. He married another woman and had a male baby. The father decided to get rid of his girl children. To achieve his plan, he trained to become snake charmer and bought a snake (Egyptian cobra). The father forced the snake to bite the three children several times and left them to die. At last, he burned the snake.”
Paulis, M. G. and Faheem, A. L. (2016), Homicidal Snake Bite in Children. J Forensic Sci, 61: 559–561. doi:10.1111/1556-4029.12997
Humans have had to deal with the threat of snakebites as long as humans have existed. While deaths from snakebites are rare, the outcomes are so severe and the nature of the animal so mysterious, that humans have developed all sorts of ways of dealing with them.
Witchdoctors, or Mganga as they are known in East Africa, are the first line for snakebite treatment here. The Waganga are fairly useless for treating many serious health issues, but they have carved out a niche for themselves for a few public health problems.
Our survey in Western Kenya confirms that nearly 100% of people who have been bitten by a snake visit the Mganga, regardless of whether they visit a formal health facility or not.
I went and sat down with an established Mganga here in Kwale and he was gracious enough to answer all of my questions openly and (mostly) honestly.
Hello, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. Is English OK?
No, my English is not very good. Can we do this through a translator?
Of course. So, what happens when a patient comes in for treatment for a snakebite?
When the patient comes in, I first apply the “njiwe na njoka” (lit: snake stone). The stone sucks all the poison out of the wound. When you put it on the bite, it will stick. When the stone has absorbed all the poison, it will fall off.
What do you mean? Like it just sticks to the flesh without tying it?
Yes, if there is poison, the stone will stick to the body. When all the poison is gone, the stone will fall off. After it is done, I take the stone and wash it with milk several times and then use it again for the next patient.
What is the snake stone? Is it like a rock? I’ve seen people use charcoal in the villages. They tie it to the wound, it doesn’t appear to stick on its own.
No, this is different. This is a stone from the snake. The stone is in the skull of the snake, like that of a fish.
(Note: I did not know this, but some species of snakes have otoliths, like most fish. Snakes (and fish) are deaf in the traditional sense. The otolith is a piece of calcium which grows as the animal ages and sit on top of a bed of nerves. When there are vibrations, the otolith vibrates, stimulating the nerve bed so that the animal can “hear” motion around it. Not all snakes have otoliths but some species of burrowing snakes do.)
Where do you get the stone? Can you just buy it in the market?
The snake stones come from the Maasai, from big snakes in Maasai land. My teacher travels to Maasai land to get them and brings them back.
If the wound is fresh, I apply the stone. However, if it has been two or three days since the bite, I can’t use the stone anymore. Then I have to use a special medicine made from herbs and crushed snake heads. I mix it all together, then crush it into a powder and keep in a gourd.
When the patient comes in, I use a new razor blade to make small scratches on the wound. Then I rub the powder in it and bandage the wound. The wound will try to heal over time, so you have to make the scratches to be able to apply the powder.
Do you use the razor blade again?
No, I always use a new blade. (He was emphatic on this point.)
What is the powder made from?
Snakeheads. When we kill a snake, we keep the heads to make the powder. We mix it with roots, bark and leaves from special plants from deep in the forest. My teacher is a security guard in one of the forests and can get them when he can find them.
Wait, so your teacher is a forest ranger? Can’t he get by being an Mganga?
Yes. He is a forest ranger.
So he took the job so that he can get the plants from the forest whenever he needs them.
OK, so how many bites do you see per month?
It depends, some months I get more than others but mostly one every three months or so.
Do you refer them to the health facility for formal treatment?
Yes, I do. I treat them, then they go to the facility, then they come back to me. (I’m suspicious on this point, though the Mganga in question appears more together than most.)
Is there a religious component to this?
Well, there are two kinds of bites, those where the snake just bites and there is no witchcraft and those where someone has used magic to send the snake to bite you.
How do you know the difference?
If the bite heals quickly, there is no witchcraft. But if the bite is treated and does not improve then there is definitely witchcraft involved. At that time, I have to use powerful magic to get rid of the curse.
What do you do?
I send the snake back to the person who applied the curse. When we hear that someone nearby has been bitten, we know who applied the curse.
(Note: this is not uncommon. Witchcraft is often associated with hatred and revenge but the person applying the curse risks becoming cursed themselves. It is possible that snakebites are seen as a never ending battle of malevolent spiritual forces. What this does is sow distrust among people, even families and the Mganga is seen as the only cure. The result is that the Mganga are never without work.)
How did you learn this craft?
I was sick for a long time with stomach and head problems. I went to the hospital and it never got better so then I went to an Mganga. I improved. The Mganga suggested that I become on and I started training under him.
Thank you very much for your time.
We just spent the day driving around Kwale looking for snakes, and/or people who had been bitten by snakes. As the last post showed, snakebites are a persistent problem along the Kenyan Coast, with more then 5% of the households we survey indicating that at least one person in the household had been bitten in the past two years.
It wasn’t difficult to find them.
Snakes are universally feared all over Africa and the associations with witchcraft make it a common topic of discussion. Everyone knows someone who has been bitten. They often know all the details, including where it happened and what occurred following the bite. It’s never a happy story.
We went deep into Kinango, an extremely rural area west of Kwale Town and found a friendly lady who seemed to know everything about everyone. She was incredibly jolly, pulled out some plastic chairs for us to sit under and cracked jokes the whole time. I even got to copy her collection of Sangeya music which she had recorded on her phone (another post but you can hear some of it here) at some local music festivals. In total I got more than five hours of live Sengeya and Chilewa music. In the music world, these would be called “field recordings.” Here, this is just music she cooks and cleans to.
Switching back and forth between snakes and Sengenya (in Africa it seems to be possible to have multiple conversations at once), she told us about a kid who had been bitten two days previous. She even told us where to find her, so off we went.
The child was collecting firewood around a mango tree near her home, when she was suddenly bitten by a large green snake, not once but three times on the foot. The snake bit once skated away, decided it wasn’t enough and came back and bit her twice more.
Ants had moved into the dead tree and hollowed out the area underneath. Presumably, the snake moved in previously and came out to warm up during the day.
The mother thankfully took the child immediately to Kinango Hospital and treated was administered. The child was given a three day course of antivenom injections and charcoal was wrapped around the wounds to absorb any venomous discharge. Though the child complains of some numbness in the area, it looks as if there won’t be any permanent damage. Thankfully.
We were also told of an old woman who had been bitten more than 20 years ago, and was badly scarred, figured out where she was and off we went again.
As we pulled up a friendly young lady came out to greet us, and showed us the way to the house out back. In the distance, we could see an old lady walking with a limp. Otherwise, she was completely fit and seemed to be cutting her own firewood with a panga.
She brought us out some chairs and sat down to chat. In 1992, she had been out back collecting firewood (a pattern) and was bitten on the foot by puff adder, one of the deadliest snakes in the world. She was bitten on the foot, and became immobile for nearly a week. A series of witch doctors were brought in, who administered charcoal rubbed into small cuts in the skin.
Necrosis set in, and watery blood erupted out of the wound site. A large number of maggots appeared. Finally, someone had the good sense to take her to the hospital, where she spent an entire year.
The details were unclear, but it appeared that the gangrene was so severe that multiple infections were presents. They likely had her on intravenous antibiotics for an extended amount of time. Despite this, the foot did not heal. Some Christian missionaries came, and convinced her to convert to Christianity, which, she claimed, improved her condition. This is likely coincidental.
The doctors suggested a skin graft to improve the foot, but she refused. Necrosis was so deep that it permeated the bone and the foot is permanently curved as a result. The leg still shows sign of swelling even more than 24 years after the bite. In most cases, they probably would have simply amputated.
The lady was born in 1948, bore ten children, one of which was born just as she was bitten. She was unable to breast feed or care for the child. Regardless, the daughter has two children of her own now.
Snakebites are bad news. In this woman’s case, the disregard for proper medical care simply made a bad situation worse. She is truly lucky to be alive. If she had died, it is doubtful that the Mgangas would have admitted any responsibility.
I sent our DSS out looking for snake bites, and they found them! We simply asked households if anyone in the household had been bitten by a snake in the past five years. More then 5% of them said “yes” and since we know the locations of the households, we were able to make this cool map. Note that the snake bites tend to cluster around two large areas and are noticeably absent from others.
Kenya hosts many varieties of extremely poisonous snakes included the Puff Adder, the Black and Green Mamba and the spitting Cobra. Snakes are universally feared here and often killed on sight by the locals.
Why malaria? Over-researched, over-funded, diminishing returns? Rambling on the need for student mentorship.
Last week I gave an informal lecture on survey sampling to a small group of graduate students from a number of countries. With only one exception, all of the students were working on various aspects of malaria, primarily in basic sciences. The lone non-malaria student was from Vietnam and is interested in Dengue fever.
I praised her for working on Dengue. Dengue presents a serious threat to human health in all countries where the vectors exist, but the burden of disease will be particularly felt in rapidly urbanizing areas of developing countries.
Developing countries are ill equipped to deal with Dengue, and the antiquated nature of their health care systems, leftover by the colonialists, means that diagnostics are mostly non-existent and drugs wholly unavailable. Any fever in most of Sub-Saharan Africa is diagnosed simply as malaria, drugs administered and the patient left on their own.
We have extensive experience, however, with malaria. While there are numerous challenges to reducing malaria incidence, preventing recrudescence and postponing drug resistance, the basic fact is that the best way to eliminate or control malaria is to simply make people less poor. Even countries with holoendemic transmission, wealthier people get malaria less often than poor people, and poor people who live in wealthier areas get sick less than wealthier people in poor areas. This is known (in Game of Thrones parlance).
So, as we discussed the topic during lecture, I softly tried to encourage the students to look at other areas where they might be able to better apply their skills. They were mostly unresponsive, which is fine. Someone has to tell them, it might as well be me.
One of the students, however, indicated that “malaria is where the money is.” I couldn’t disagree. The reason that we put so much money and effort into diseases like malaria and HIV is simply because they yield marketable products. Medications for diseases like tungiasis (jiggers) are so simple as to not be profitable, customers too poor to buy them, and governments and donors too distracted by big diseases like malaria, HIV and TB to be concerned with dumping money to provide them for free.
And this is where the problem lies. We have a self propagating system of companies, researchers and donors, which simply float money between one another with little regard for the needs of the poorest of the poor. Breaking the cycle is difficult, but it starts with academics who need to push students to do work with neglected, overlooked or under-researched diseases. Even small grants can support small, but meaningful projects.
We have reached a point where malaria funding for malaria research is yielding ever diminishing returns. Money needs to be put into programs to deliver the tools we have and make ITNs, ACTs and IRS available to the people who need them, who often have trouble getting them. Moreover, we need economic development to make people less poor in developing coutnries so that fewer of their babies die. Human resources in developed countries need to start focusing on emerging (or already emerged but ignored) threats lke antibiotic resistance, Dengue fever, emerging zoonotics and others. That starts with us as mentors.