Plague in Madagascar: not good, but not unusual either

Microbiology in the news again. This time it’s an outbreak of the plague in Madagascar, and it’s causing a bit of a stir.
Now, don’t get me wrong – an outbreak of plague is never a good thing – but once again, a little perspective is called for here. Surprise (and if I may be so bold) “surprise”.

Plague is one of those diseases which captures the public’s imagination, with historical tales about the Black Death sweeping across Europe in the Middle Ages and killing an awful lot of people in its path. And because of that history, plague has a cool nickname and a “superstar” disease status, and news outlets – desperate for clicks – are getting overly excited about it, just like they did with Ebola.

But the fact is that plague is not just a historical disease: yes, it was infamously around a few hundred years ago, but it never really went away. As with many diseases, its prevalence has merely declined due to better hygiene, better education, better pest control and better medical treatment. But even in (supposedly) developed countries like the USA, there are still up to 20 documented cases of plague each year. Worldwide, there are a few hundred reported cases each year, with a mortality rate of around 25%. However, it’s likely that there are many more unreported cases, given that it is now primarily a disease found in rural areas of less developed countries.

The bad news is that Madagascar is a less developed country than the USA (albeit that its gun control laws are somewhat better), and this makes outbreaks of plague (or any other infectious disease) more likely to occur there and more difficult to control once they do.

The better news is that while this is a terrible and potentially disastrous situation, at this point, it’s certainly not unusual. Madagascar is the plague capital of the world (look, it’s not a claim that they stick on their tourism posters) with around 80% of the world’s cases each year, and outbreaks occur almost annually around this time of year, as the temperatures start to rise and the rat and flea populations – vectors of the disease – start to increase.
Additionally, because of this recent history, the authorities will be better set up to deal with the outbreak, despite the challenges mentioned above. And as we saw with Ebola in West Africa in 2014, that’s really important. Also, as long as you can get treated promptly, as a bacterial disease, plague is eminently treatable with simple, basic, cheap antibiotics.

I’m in no way belittling a very serious situation, but if you didn’t get all panicky and excited about the plague outbreaks in Madagascar in, say, 2014 and 2015, then right now there’s really no reason to get carried away about this one either.

Bird Flu back

We have another outbreak of bird flu in the Western Cape. Officially, of course, it’s called Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), but no-one knows what HPAI is, so let’s still with the vernacular, shall we? This latest outbreak, currently confined to two farms in the Heidelberg area, is type H5N8. Again, this means very little to the man (or womxn) on the street, but it is important to us scientists.

There have been 13 outbreaks of bird flu up north since June this year:

The outbreaks involved seven commercial chicken farms, two groups of backyard chickens, three sets of wild birds and one group of domestic geese.

But this is the Western Cape, and we like to do things a little differently. Thus, our outbreak is centred around two ostrich farms. Given that one of the primary symptoms of bird flu is a sore throat, contracting the disease if you’re an ostrich can’t be very nice – like an elephant getting earache or a narwhal suffering with horn rot.
That said, given that one of the other symptoms of bird flu is death, contracting the disease can’t be very nice full stop.

Fortunately, this outbreak seems to have been caught promptly during routine testing (which is what routine testing is all about, of course). The good news about this is that hopefully it won’t have the opportunity to spread. The bad news is that it’s still likely that all 1000 ostriches involved will have to be culled.

You might expect some sort of pithy comment to finish this informative post off, but the whole situation is actually potentially rather serious, so I think we’ll leave that for another time.

Beards in the lab

Fashion is cyclical. Beards are back in, after 35+ clean-shaven years.

I don’t wear one myself, but I am aware of some individuals that do. And some of them work in laboratories. Eww.

Why eww? Because you’ll surely remember the 1967 research of Barbeito et al. entitled:

Microbiological Laboratory Hazard of Bearded Men


Allow me to reacquaint you with their work:

An investigation was conducted to evaluate the hypothesis that a bearded man subjects his family and friends to risk of infection if his beard is contaminated by infectious microorganisms while he is working in a microbiological laboratory.

It’s a serious thing, and it’s why we wear lab coats and gloves (and sometimes more PPE) when we’re working in the lab. It’s why we wash our hands thoroughly each time we leave the room. And it’s not just to protect ourselves from contaminated and/or infection. No-one wants to wander out of the lab and give spread germs, disease and infection to everyone they meet. (Although this does depend on who they meet, I guess.)

So we’re all covered and washed, but… but what about the guy over there with his beard? Well, Barbeito et al.’s  methods to investigate whether bearded men could carry germs out of the lab were pretty cool:

They sprayed some non-pathogenic (non-disease causing) bacteria into real beards on real men and sampled the beard at 30 minutes and 6 hours)

The 30-min interval was selected to represent two work situations: (i) the time necessary for a man to complete a laboratory operation in a zealous attempt to avoid loss of an experimental series despite a known accidental contamination of his beard before he rejoined his associates with an unwashed beard, and (ii) the time required for an immediate shower and change of clothing, after an accident that contaminated the beard and the before association with fellow employees or family.
The 6-hr interval was selected to represent the time between an unrecognized contamination of the beard and family contact with the unwashed beard.

“Sorry dear, I’ve brought some work home this evening.”

Then they sprayed Botox and rubbed infected chickens against a beard on a mannequin. Seriously.

fullscreen-capture-2016-10-21-104950-am-bmpYeah, that image will stick with me as well. Apologies for that.

Clean-shaven men (and presumably, clean-shaven mannequins) were used as controls, just to see that any significant results were genuinely beard-related.


Yes. Beards are dirty and dangerous and yucky and are (now) full of Serratia marcescens and Bacillus subtilis var. niger and Newcastle disease virus and Clostridium botulinum toxin, type A:

The experiments showed that beards retained microorganisms and toxin despite washing with soap and water. Although washing reduced the amount of virus or toxin, a sufficient amount remained to produce disease upon contact with a suitable host.

Do you have a beard? Do you work or live with someone who has a beard?

This experiment suggests that even if they don’t work in a lab, and even if they do wash their beard, it’s still horribly full of nasty bacteria and cornflakes* and stuff. You will might get an infection.

Consider yourself warned. And go get a shave.


* possibly, anyway.

Agar plate art

Ah yes, two of my most very favourite things: microbiology and art. Well, apart from the art. But still – this has a more than tenuous link to The Best Science In The World™, and it’s quite pretty too.

It’s art, made by microbiologists, using bacteria and fungi grown on agar plates – the sort of thing you see in a darkened lab in CSI series. Utilising the fact that different bugs grow in different colours on different sorts of plates, it’s not too hard to design a masterpiece – the only problem is that you can’t see what you’re designing while you design it – you have to wait 24 hours (probably at 37ºC) for the results to appear. So delayed art, then.


Here’s a Salmonella and Shigella butterfly on a sunflower. The black of the butterfly has been generated by the Salmonella spp. producing hydrogen sulphide.

And here’s a five plate recreation of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”, courtesy of a gutload of Proteus mirabilis, Acinetobacter baumanii, Enterococcus faecalis and Klebsiella pneumonia. Eww.


I have done this before, although not to this kind of standard, I’ll admit. But as a junior in the lab in Oxford, we used to design Christmas tree plate art using Serratia marscescensPseudomonas aeruginosa and Rhodococcus equi as a seasonal greeting for the staff working the Xmas shift the following morning. Depending on who was working that shift, there was always the temptation to use far more dangerous bugs, but professionalism generally prevailed and no-one was permanently injured, as far as I recall anyway.

See more examples of plate art here.

just Panama things

I say Panama, you say…?
Well, it’s going to be one of two things: “hats” or “canal”. OK, or possibly “Jack’s”  if you’re Capetonian and into dockside seafood.

The Canal famously goes right through Panama twixt Panama City and… er… Colon, so that’s a valid Panamanian thing (also, it’s ‘currently being extended’, but… but how?).
The hats, however, infamously actually originate from Ecuador, which is but one Colombia away from Panama, but isn’t Panama. They are definitely hats though.

There is another Panama thing. A biggie, too. The Disease. If you’ve ever had Panama Disease, then frankly I’m amazed that you’re reading this. Not just because it’s invariably fatal, but moreover because it only affects bananas.

Fusarium oxysporum – that’s your problem, right there. It’s untreatable. And it’s been an issue for a while, prompting lines like:

The banana industry was in a serious crisis, so a new banana thought to be immune to Panama disease was found and adopted, the Cavendish.

But now even the trusty, sturdy Cavendish is becoming threatened by a new variant of Panama Disease: “Tropical Race 4”.
And it’s serious. Because Banana Business is Big Business: R5.7 BILLION Business each year in North Queensland alone. NQ is panicking a bit, because the catastrophic Northern Territory banana crash of 1997 – yes, caused by that fungal bastard – is still very fresh in the memory. The NT banana industry has never really recovered either, because the Fusarium spores can hang around in the soil for 30 years or more, just waiting for their next bananary host to be planted and then killing it, and with it, the local industry.
The concern is that NQ may well go the same way.

We’re not immune here in South Africa, either.

Fusarium wilt (Panama disease) is responsible for severe Iosses of Cavendish bananas in two of the six production areas of South Africa: Kiepersol and southern KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). The disease first occurred in KZN in 1940, and from there spread to Kiepersol with infected plant material, where it resulted in 30% Ioss of banana fields between 1991 and 2000.

The biggest problem with bananas, aside from their irritating habit of being green when I want to buy them in Woolies, is that they reproduce asexually. Poor things. Asexual reproduction doesn’t allow for much genetic variation though, and so if Daddy banana is wilting (careful now), Baby banana is going to get it too. Bad news for bananas generally.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer. But that’s kind of the point here. No-one has the answer: it’s another case of us so-called brilliant humans being outwitted by a microbe. Now, not only it it the case that we are all going to die horrible deaths soon, we’re not going to have any bananas to eat while we’re doing it.