Microbiology is bad news

Except it’s obviously really not.

Microbiology is great.

But when microbiology gets into the news, it’s rarely for happy happy joy joy reasons. Even the mention of words like Ebola, Listeriosis or Bacteroides melaninogenica twist the tongues and instill fear into the hearts – and horrendous infection into other major organs – of the population.

This isn’t how it should be, so to balance the bias, I went searching for some good news microbiology stories.

Rookie error. It’s all terrible.

A tiny beetle is is killing South Africa’s trees. But only because it’s introducing a tinier fungus into those trees.

According to Professor Marcus Byrne, an Ig Nobel prize winner and entomologist at the University of the Witwatersrand, the beetle bores tunnels into tree trunks where it spreads the fungus Fusarium euwallaceae, which effectively cuts off the trees’ vascular system, causing them to die.

So, it’s the fungus that is actually killing the trees. Not the beetle.
Entomology is only very slightly to blame here. Microbiology loses again.

_____

Aside: Ig Nobel prize details here:

Byrne, an entomology lecturer, and his colleagues from Lund University in Sweden, designed caps and boots for dung beetles and dressed the beetles in their new apparel to prove, firstly, that dung beetles use the Milky Way to orientate.

The caps blocked light from reaching their eyes in order to experiment with how they use starlight to navigate. The boots, in a fashionable luminous green, blocked heat from reaching the dung beetles’ feet.

_____

Next up: Virus kills pigs. Millions of pigs.

It’s African Swine Fever caused by… er… the African Swine Fever Virus.

Otto Saareväli lost his entire herd of 7000 pigs because of a case of ASF was diagnosed on his farm in Estonia.

“We have the strictest biosecurity measures here, and still no one is quite sure how the disease got in – it may have been a truck that wasn’t washed properly after visiting an infected farm,” says Saareväli. “But if you find just one pig, then everything has to go.”

Estonia is just the tip of the iceberg though. China is home to half the pigs in the world, so it’s vital that the virus doesn’t get a trotterhold there… oh… too late:

“The key thing that makes us very conscious of the threat that ASF poses is that China represents half the pigs in the world,” says Dr Matthew Stone, deputy director general of science at the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), which coordinates international monitoring of diseases. “It’s extremely important for food security and the economy of China and in the absence of a vaccine, stamping-out policies are crucial.”

And it’s not under control.

“At the moment because it’s on the move and undergoing a period of pandemic spread it’s very important.”

Still – at least that’s just a virus of pigs. There’s worse news when it comes to (very human) Measles Virus.

The annoying… no… the INFURIATING! thing about hearing about cases of, and deaths from, measles is that we have a very, very effective vaccine for measles. It’s entirely preventable.

Simply: there is no need for any child, any human, to suffer from, let alone die of, measles. So why is it happening?

Well, in Western Europe because “Dr” Andrew Wakefield is a corrupt twat, and because people chose – and continue to choose – to believe his lies.

Result?

Oh, and because misinformation and fake news is a big deal these days:

A new study showing that Russian-linked trolls and social media bots have been heavily promoting misinformation on vaccines shows just how far Putin’s government is prepared to go in its worldwide effort to sow mistrust and division. The study follows rapidly on the heels of earlier reports that Russian-owned media sites had been among the most prominent proponents of anti-GMO stories and memes, again aiming to undermine scientific consensus and public trust in academic institutions.

Both anti-vaccine and anti-GMO groups appeal to prejudices against modern science and conspiracy thinking to spread fear and misinformation. Like the tobacco lobby of old, doubt itself is their product.

We live in a truly sick (no pun intended), truly bizarre world.

And, as if it couldn’t get any worse, this:

In which, the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) declared the vaccine haram – religiously forbidden, despite also commenting that:

…the religious organisation understood the dangers associated with not getting children immunised.

So they do understand that the vaccine works, they do understand the need for it and they do understand the implications of children not being vaccinated, but they’re still going ahead and railing against it anyway.

Fantastic.

And why would you do that?

It’s entirely possible Amin is using this fatwa and the MUI in general as political tools to impact the election. The group receives funding from the government of Indonesia, and Amin has used it to impact politics in the past.

Ah – personal gain at the expense of others. Pretty sure that’s unlikely to be top of the list at the Things I Learnt From the Quran Symposium later this year.

To be fair to Microbiology, it might be Fusarium spp. killing the trees and not the beetle, but it’s Ma’ruf Amin killing Indonesian kids and not the measles virus.

Science is doing everything it can, but in Indonesia, it’s Religion 1-0 Microbiology.

Microbiology will still get the blame, though.

I will go on looking for good news Microbiology stories, but I’m not going to waste too much time over it, because I don’t think that there are any of them out there.

Harper: “I didn’t say that”

Following on from my post about the Natalie Morton case – in which a 14-year old girl died from a thoracic tumour, coincidentally on the day that she received the HPV “Cervical Cancer” vaccine, Cervarix – I was surprised (to say the least) to hear that Diane Harper, a woman involved with the development and testing of HPV vaccine had spoken out about how dangerous the vaccine was.

Strangely, when you try and look up that exclusive story on the Sunday Express website, you get this:

exp

So why is this “article missing”?

Well, it was removed by the Express after it was exposed as a complete sham, untrue or incorrect in every single aspect and detail.

On Wednesday, Roy Greenslade was one of the first to question the veracity of the article, but even his warning:

Once again, this tale illustrates how relying on a single “expert” to sensationalise a contentious issue – especially when the central “fact” of the reason for Natalie Morton’s death has been found to be inaccurate – is a journalistic no-no.

fell far short of the actual truth, which – as Ben Goldacre then discovered – was that the expert in question had been misquoted on every single statement (they even got her title wrong, calling her “Dr” Harper):

I contacted the professor. I will explain Harper’s position in her own words. They are unambiguous: “I did not say that Cervarix was as deadly as cervical cancer. I did not say that Cervarix could be riskier or more deadly than cervical cancer. I did not say that Cervarix was controversial, I stated that Cervarix is not a ‘controversial drug’. I did not ‘hit out’ – I was contacted by the press for facts. And this was not an exclusive interview.”

Brilliant journalism, then. But this is no more than we have come to expect from the Express – the stable which has paid out more in libel damages than any other British newspaper in recent years.

Several complaints have been made to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), resulting in the deletion of the story from the website and a partial apology published on page 2 of the Sunday Express today:

Last Sunday we incorrectly suggested that the cervical cancer vaccine Cervarix could be as deadly as cervical cancer and that the vaccine is ineffective.
We now accept that there is no evidence to suggest that this is the case and that Cervarix in fact provides protection against the viruses that cause 70% of cervical cancers.
We are happy to set the record straight and apologise for causing undue alarm to all those women and teenage girls considering vaccination against cervical cancer.

Thankfully, that pitiful effort (which doesn’t even acknowledge their appalling slur against Professor Harper) will probably not be enough to save them from another hefty fine and further action.

It’s nice when the chickens come home to roost on these examples of shoddy journalism. It’s just a shame that Dianne Jefferson hasn’t complained about Ray Hartley and The Times here in SA about their made-up and sensationalist piece about her.
But it is another example of how lousy journalists (such as Lucy Johnston in the case of the Express and Lauren Cohen in The Times) can write complete and utter bullshit and publish it on their front page, then get away with it by dropping a couple of paragraphs somewhere deep in next week’s edition. Too little, too late when the damage is already done.

As one letter to the PCC states:

This is little more than ill-founded scaremongering and irresponsible journalism of the worst kind. Its only effect is bound to be — as was the case with the coverage the MMR ‘controversy’ — to reduce take-up of the vaccine, in which case the Sunday Express will share responsibility for further deaths.

I couldn’t agree more.

hat-tip to Jacques