Daily Archives: October 1, 2002

Fun Diseases

I’m continuing my cavalcade of science-related pieces in honor of the release of Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges Through the Universe, to which I contributed a significant number of the articles contained therein. The pieces you’re reading here this week are rather similar in tone and content to the pieces you’ll find in the Uncle John’s books (explicitly in the case of the articles I wrote, and implicitly even in the one I didn’t, since they wouldn’ta bought so many of my pieces if they didn’t fit the general tone of their book), so if you like it, consider getting the book (click on the graphic for an Amazon link). Remember: You don’t have to only read it in the bathroom. Also remember the contest I’m running: The winner will get a whole stack of Scalziana. Yes, that’s a word. At least it is now.

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Have We Got a Disease For You!

Looking for a little something to make you stand out from the infectious crowd? One of these maladies may just do the trick.

We know how it is. You want to be different from the other guy. Everyone else is walking around with a cold or a flu — your standard issue rhinovirus or influenza bug — but you want something different. Something that you’re just not going to catch on any street corner. Well, then, come one down. Right now we’ve got a nice suite of diseases, maladies and genetic conditions that will make you stand out in the crowd, if only because you’ll have to be locked in a sterile room with two or three levels of biological isolation protocols placed between you and the outside world. Won’t that be fun? Oh, don’t worry. Some of these diseases and maladies aren’t even fatal.

Carotenosis: Let’s start off with something relatively benign, shall we? Carotenosis comes from over ingestion of beta carotene, a pigment that you’ll find in vegetables such as carrots — your body turns it into vitamin A, which is, generally speaking, a good thing. Ingest too much beta carotene, however (say you eat nothing but carrots and drink nothing but carrot juice, just because you were curious to see what would happen) and eventually your skin will turn orange That’s carotenosis, a real example of “you are what you eat.” Carotenosis won’t kill you, it’ll just make you look funny, but massive doses of vitamin A can cause: Nausea, vomiting, irritability, hair loss, weight loss, liver enlargement, menstrual problems, bone abnormalities, and stunted growth for the kids. So if you find yourself turning orange, lay off the rabbit food for a couple of days.

Hereditary Methemoglobinemia: You say orange really isn’t your color? How do you feel about blue? This genetic malady causes a malformation in the hemoglobin molecule in your blood, reducing your blood’s capacity to carry oxygen. This turns arterial blood sort of brownish, and in folks of a Caucasian stripe, this will give your skin a distinct — and distinctive! — bluish tinge. True, your blood’s not exactly richly oxygenated, but that’ll just give you a fashionable appearance of ennui. But there is a catch: Hereditary methemoglobinemia is recessive, so by and large it’s prevalent only where (oh, how to put this delicately), a family tree has a few too many recursive branches. This was the case in the most famous case of this ailment, the Fugate family of Kentucky, where a high incidence of cousin-marrying eventually caused a number of Fugates to be blue, and not just in the traditional “I’m feeling mighty low” sense.

Want blue skin but would rather not have father-uncles and sister-cousins? There is also acquired metheoglobinemia, which you can get by exposure to certain toxic chemicals. However, the side effects of this variant are headache, fatigue, tachycardia, weakness and dizziness at low levels of exposure, followed by dyspnea, acidosis, arrhythmias, coma, and convulsions at higher levels, which is then followed by death. Speaking of feeling blue.

Kuru: Enough with this skin color nonsense, you say. Give me a truly distinctive disease! Fine, if you really want to make an impression, try on kuru for size. Even the name tell you it’s something truly nasty, since “kuru” means “trembling with fear” in the language for the Fore, the New Guinea highland tribe in which the disease reached epidemic proportions in the middle of the last century. Kuru’s first symptoms are headaches and joint pains, followed several weeks later by difficulty in walking, and uncontrolled trembling while asleep or while stressed (which would be most of the time, considering). Tremors become progressively worse, confining the patient to bed. This is followed by total loss of the ability to swallow or eat, and after that you’re just a hydrating IV drip away from doom. Oh yes, you’ll definitely be the belle of the ball with this one.

One minor detail, which would be how you catch Kuru in the first place You have to eat brains. Specifically, human brains. Even more specifically, human brains already infected with kuru. This is how the Fore got it — as part of their funeral rituals, they ate the brains of their dead. Not quite up for a Hannibal Lector moment? Well, fine. Let’s move on then, shall we.

Necrotizing Fasciitis: Or as you know it, flesh-eating bacteria! The funny thing is (and that’s funny as in ironic, not funny as in “non-stop chucklefest”), the affliction does live up to its name The bacteria involved in necrotizing fasciitis (which include the usually somewhat less virulent Group A streptococcus that give us run-of-the-mill ailments like strep throat) can actually eat through an inch of flesh in the space of an hour. What will make you truly paranoid is that early symptoms of necrotizing fasciitis are remarkably similar to flu symptoms, including vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, weakness, muscle pain, and fever.

It’s the second set of symptoms — very painful infection around a cut or a bruise and/or a rapidly growing infection around said bruise — that will have you rocketing towards the doctors and praying that Western Civilization’s rampant misuse of antibiotics in everything from bathroom soaps to livestock feed hasn’t caused your personal area of infection to be packed with drug-resistant bacteria that will simply laugh cruelly at whatever it is the doctor administers to fight them.

The good news here is that the odds of your flu-like symptoms devolving into necrotizing fasciitis are a couple hundred thousand to one (your odds are somewhat greater if you’ve just had chicken pox, however). If you really want to reduce your fretting, wash any cut or scrape you get with warm soapy water, and keep the wound dry and bandaged, just like you’re supposed to. And rethink your desire to have a truly unique disease. After considering necrotizing fasciitis, a nice run-of -the-mill cold is beginning to look mighty attractive.