A Second Vaccine against Pneumonia Recommended for Seniors

If you're over 65, there’s a new vaccine you should know about. But before I explain the vaccine, let me introduce you to the bacterium that the vaccine protects you from. The little blue ovals in the above picture are Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria. You might have guessed by its name that S. pneumoniae is a leading cause of pneumonia, and you'd be right. Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs, usually manifested by fever, productive cough, and shortness of breath. Pn...

Sorting Out the Different Flu Vaccines

The best way to avoid the flu is spending the months from fall until spring in a solitary bunker, communicating with other people only electronically. The second best way is getting the flu vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the flu vaccine for everyone over 6 months who doesn't have a specific contraindication to it. Because of the increasing number of different flu vaccines that are now available, this post highlights the three most commonly used fl...

Why Ebola is not a Major Threat in the US

I have written twice this year (links below) about the increasingly severe Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The news in West Africa is still mostly bad. Over 7,000 have become ill and over 3,300 have died. This is by far the worst Ebola outbreak ever. This week marked another first, the first Ebola patient diagnosed in the US. This news is likely making many of my regular readers wonder “Should I freak out?” This is a reasonable question, and I will attempt to answer it. But first, let’s go...

Largest Ebola Outbreak in History Continues to Spread

Given the myriad horrors happening around the world this week you could be excused if West Africa has fallen off of your radar, but from a health perspective, it deserves some attention. I wrote in April about an Ebola outbreak in southeastern Guinea that had spread to Liberia and Sierra Leone. (Browse that first post for a history of Ebola, its symptoms, and how it’s transmitted.) By April the outbreak had already become t...

Nearing a Cure for Hepatitis C

In the contest to get a creative name, few pathogens have done worse than hepatitis C. In the 1970s there were two known viruses that caused hepatitis – liver inflammation. You might have already guessed that these two viruses were called hepatitis A and hepatitis B. It was known at that time that people sometimes developed hepatitis after blood transfusions and that the majority of those patients tested negative for hepatitis A and B. A new pathogen was hypothesized and called non-A-non-B h...

Return of the Spirochete


"Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other." – Edmund Burke

Syphilis has been around at least since Europeans arrived in the Western Hemisphere. It’s a sexually transmitted disease caused by Treponema pallidum, a member of a group of corkscrew-shaped bacteria called spirochetes. Sometimes it causes no symptoms at all, but typically it initially causes a painless sore on the mouth or genitals. Later it can cause a rash. Untrea...

Ebola Outbreak in West Africa Worries Health Officials

In 1976 a new virus entered the pantheon of lethal human pathogens – Ebola virus. That year outbreaks in Zaire and Sudan sickened 284 people and killed about half of them. Ebola virus causes an illness that initially resembles a typical intestinal virus, with fever, headache, joint and muscle aches, vomiting and diarrhea. Most patients quickly worsen and develop a rash, easy bleeding, and liver and kidney failure. About two thirds of the people who are infected die. Ebola is transmitted from...

Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus: the latest lethal germ

In 2003 a brand new virus named severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) caused an outbreak of serious illness in Asia. The outbreak sickened over 8,000 people and killed over 700. Many of the infected were healthcare workers. In February of last year a similar but distinct virus was identified in Saudi Arabia, the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV). Since that time about 200 people have been sickened by MERS, all linked to six countries in or near the...

Meningitis Outbreaks Strike Two Campuses

Those of us who believe in the unvarying beneficence of Mother Nature have yet to contemplate Neisseria meningitidis. N. meningitidis is a bacterium that can live harmlessly in the throats of healthy people. But about 500 times a year in the US it causes bacterial meningitis, a life-threatening infection in which the membranes lining the brain and spinal cord become inflamed. Bacterial meningitis is treatable with antibiotics but even with treatment patients sometime suffer...

A Polio Outbreak in China in 2011

Two weeks ago I wrote about the reemergence of polio in Syria and the Herculean task the World Health Organization faces to eradicate the disease – the vaccination over a million children in the Middle East, some of whom live in a war zone. (See that post for a review of the symptoms of polio and the history of polio eradication in the West.) This week’s post is about another polio outbreak which was managed very differentl...