Brucellosis: My New Bacterial Tenant
For those keeping up, you may remember that I spent the summer in Kenya, working with a team extracting blood samples from camels, cows, goats and sheep. We were in contact with all of these animals on almost a daily basis. We weren’t wearing any protection at all, but it’s inconceivable to wear a full hazmat suit while taking blood from goats in a Maasai community. You’d get laughed out of town.
My days right now are running in a fairly predictable pattern. I wake up, feel pretty good, eat breakfast and drink some coffee. At about 10-11 a.m. I begin to feel dizzy, sweat somewhat, a low grade fever kicks in and a horrible taste develops in my mouth. My peripheral vision is limited and I have trouble focusing on distant objects. It gets progressively worse throughout the day, but improves before dinner. After dinner, I feel worse than before. I’m positive that the brunt of the physical symptoms are associated with anemia. It’s like a low grade malaria.
The psychological effects are fascinating. Again, in the morning, I feel fine. As the day progresses, I am less and less able to string coherent sentences together (not that I’m good at it in the best of times), lose thoughts in mid sentence and can’t remember important vocabulary words. I’m stuck in an existential funk where the thought of tomorrow is dark, I’ve forgotten the past and the present isn’t all that meaningful. I often find myself staring into space and time passes quickly.
Though I have no other negative physical effects and am able to leave the house and move around, I’m finding this incredibly debilitating. Even writing this blog post is a challenge.
From the pathogen’s standpoint, this situation is ideal. It doesn’t immediately kill the host, and the bacteria tends to incubate in cells so that it can avoid the body’s immune response. If I were a herd animal, eating and defecating in the same space, I would be able to transmit for, conceivably, the rest of my life. The low grade anemia keeps the animal mobile, yet impedes its ability to evade predators, allowing transmission to occur from herbivorous ungulates to carnivorous animals.
Again, because the bacteria hides out in cells, it’s a bear to kill. I have two months of two types of antibiotics to look forward to, both with different schedules and dietary requirements. One causes awful nightmares (doxycycline).
If left untreated brucellosis can include abscesses in the joints, spinal problems, blindness and inflammation of the testicles. It is anecdotally associated with elevated rates of suicide in veterinarians. I’m wondering how much chronic brucellosis there is in pastoralist communities in Sub-Saharan Africa. The burden must be quite severe.
This is going to be rough, but it’s better than a lifetime of these symptoms. I’m certainly finding this scientifically interesting, though I will be happy to have it gone for good.
Thoughts on Environmentalism and an Anthrocentric World
I think that rather than ask whether humans are “more important than other species,” we have to explore the human-nature dichotomy itself. Unfortunateley, discussions on environmental issues seem to start from an assumption that one exists. These discussions, which put humans at odds with nature, generally lose me on three points (though, again, this is not my field of expertise):
1) The intense focus on large mammals. If we are going to convince ourselves that “nature’s” needs are more important than our own (or simply worth considering) we have to eliminate the idea of a hierarchy of species and consider all living things as equally important. It often seems that conversations become less holistic and more mammal-centric. Given that we are mammals and hard wired to like cute and furry things (particularly those small and weak), this is to be expected. However, the urge to protect things like ourselves makes it impossible for humans to objectively rank the importance of living things.
How often do you hear about people screaming to save snakes? Perhaps it happens and I just don’t hear about it. Clearly, big furry animals are an easy sell.
2) The idea that “species” are distinct entities, the number of which needs to be maximized at any cost. Preserving more species is seen as a goal, when in fact, the word itself is not uncontroversial. “Species” is a rough and artificial concept created by humans to assist in our understanding of the world. Even scientists can’t agree on what a species is, given that the situation that determines how a species is defined differs by type of animal and context (and history).
Take the Zebra, which comes in three main flavors, though I’ll focus on two. The Grevy zebra is Equus grevyi and the plains zebra is Equus quagga, different “species” by classification, but able to breed with one another and create offspring which are able to reproduce. The two “species” are distinct from one another only in superficial morphological features (stripes and size) and behavior.
Gravy’s, though genetically indistinct from plains zebras, are listed as endangered, which gives them certain benefits and allows Kenya (for example) to legally restrict grazing for Maasai goat herders, with the support of international groups. It’s a simplistic example, but it makes little sense to me to ask that humans make sacrifices based on a flawed concept of what makes a “species.” It also makes little sense to create policy which impacts the lives of Africans based on a false paradigm created by 19th century Europeans (“Gravy” was a French President). Yet, here we are.
An aside, but I often think that people really believe that “species,” particularly large mammals, are individuals with distinct personalities and collective thought patterns. From the animals’ standpoint, extinction isn’t an issue. Rhinos don’t hold regular meetings and worry collectively about extinction. Individual rhinos are merely concerned with eating enough grass and mating when necessary.
3) The concept that nature is a fragile and static entity which would be ultimately benefit from our non-existence. This stems from traditional dichotomies of “man” and “nature” where man operates in his (male) world and nature operates in an entirely separate and unchanged sphere. In the West, this goes all the way back to Genesis. It is a simplistic and useless concept and does more harm than good.
Nature is a dynamic and constantly changing system of which we are one part. We create nature “reserves” which are thought to “preserve” the “natural” state of “nature” but even these are artificial, human constructed spaces, as we have dictated the location and killed all our large wildlife. We approach them are “preserves”, but forget that we have altered the system (by, for example killing the wolves or cutting all the pine trees in Michigan). Thus, arguing for the “preservation” of nature is somewhat disingenuous, since even by advocating for what part of nature needs to be preserved, we are writing its rules.
The question of whether the world would be better or worse off without us is fairly moot since humans are defining the terms of “better” and “worse.” Moreover, from the German cockroach’s (Blattella germanica) standpoint or the Black rat (Rattus rattus), humans could be considered a great thing as we tend to migrate and take our pests with us. If it could, Plasmodium falciparum should worship us like a God, since it wouldn’t exist without us.
I don’t see man as separate from nature. For better or for worse, we are a part of it. But after we have run our course, the world will go on without us. “Nature,” however it may be defined, has shown itself to be a tough beast in the past. Even if the entire planet became desertized (is that a word?), life would continue to exist. One day, with or without us, all life on Earth will cease to exist.
The most salient questions should revolve around how our environmental impacts affect our long term survival for humans. Focusing on our own needs is the only sustainable strategy (though I despise the word).
A Visit to the Local Witch Doctor
My friend, Gabriel, though, knowing I’m into weirdness, took me to one tonight. By sheer coincidence, we happened to run into him on the way walking with a young gentleman. After a brief exchange, he was kind enough to agree to see us and led us back to his house.
Through Gabriel (my Luo is beyond poor), I asked him what the young man was doing there. The healer told me that someone had stolen some items from the guy. He had come to the healer to ask him to use his magic to reveal the identity of the thief and purchase some medicine with with to curse the man who had stolen his property. I asked him if people came to him often with such troubles. He replied that yes, indeed, many people do.
I tried to be snide and ask him what he would do if the thief came to him to try and get the curse removed and put on the guy that cursed him (fueling a never ending cyclic hell of cursing), but he didn’t really get what I was after.The healer then turned to me and asked me what my troubles were. I tried to tell him my knee hurts (which it does), but he kept insisting that my stomach hurt (it does not). Finally, I had to cave and just tell him that I was suffering from stomach pain. When he was describing the pain, he kindly tried to include the knees.
The healer learned his trade from his parents. He claims that his particular magic is strong because he learned it from his mother (rather than his father). I was told that that was a secret but I guess I’ve let it out. I’m sure it’s still a secret here. (My readership numbers show that it’s a secret anyway.)
He took us back to his house, a shack in a fishing compound on the edge of town, which usually smells of weed. He took us inside and had us sit down on his couch while he started pulling out various bottles and bags of powders. I was sitting next to him. Suddenly he jumped up and insisted that the medicines wanted me to move to the far side of the couch. I asked him if the medicines talked to him to which he replied yes, indeed, they do. I figured out pretty quickly that he’s half deaf and wanted Gabriel closer to him so he could hear.He went about mixing up some medications. The first was a small amount of powder that I thought was going to cure my alleged stomach problems, but instead was intended to get me a job. In fact, this medicine is so powerful, that I will never get fired from the job once I get it. I guess this means I’ll get a tenured faculty position any day now.
Next, he produced a number of bags of what looked like Indian spices and proceed to mix a heaping amount of what could be easily mistaken for garam masala. This medicine is what’s supposed to cure my diarrheal ills (which he also insisted I had). He poured some in my hand and told me to taste some. I hesitated but did it anyway. Definitely chili peppers in there. My mouth immediately went numb and my head started to spin a bit. Could be something like kava, definitely not weed. I have no clue what’s in this stuff, but there’s most certainly some active ingredient in it. I suspect that he produces it to emphasize his powers.He gave me very specific instructions on how to mix it, and when to use it. I am only supposed to use it between the hours of 8 and 9 p.m. All of my diarrhea and abdominal pains will immediately disappear. I am to go back to see him after two days (presumably to buy more).
Finally, he recognized that my knee hurts. He asked me if I had time to wait. I said yes, and he left the house to go and get some herbs. We could hear him pounding it into a powder outside. He returned, and said that I should mix the power with Vaseline and cover my entire body with it. I would need a partner to do it. After covering my entire body with the vaseline/powdered grass mixture, I should shake my limbs a bit. After two days, all of my pain would cease. I was to see him again (and again buy more, presumably).
We asked him how much it would be. “This is very expensive. 2,000 Schillings ($24.00).” to which we both balked. Eventually, we talked him down to 500 (about $6.00). Gabriel wanted to talk him down to 100, I just let it go figuring it was a small price to pay for such a weird experience.
Eventually, we had to go. Patients were lined up outside waiting.