Pumpkin time!

It’s Halloween time, at least in the USA. There have been some interesting carved pumpkins around with scientific and mathematical themes, like Nathan Shields’ interpretation of “Pumpkin Pi” above. The legendary Will Gater also excelled himself last year, and Lenore Edman produced a great “DNA-o-lantern” a few years ago (photo below).

Greetings to everybody who celebrates the day!

The Lassa Ward: a book review


The Lassa Ward by Ross Donaldson (2009)

I recently read The Lassa Ward: One Man’s Fight Against One of the World’s Deadliest Diseases by Ross Donaldson. Donaldson was a medical student working in Sierra Leone, fighting Lassa fever with the late Dr. Aniru Conteh at the Kenema Government Hospital.


Street scene, Kenema, Sierra Leone (photo: Patrick S. Bangura)

Donaldson’s story touches on some of the same public health challenges as the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa. It therefore sheds some light on that ongoing medical crisis, as well as reminding us that Ebola is far from being the only medical problem in that part of the world. This fascinating and somewhat disturbing memoir is well worth a read.

We soon pulled off the road and parked next to a small porch, where an anemic light guarded a few empty tables. As we sat down, our driver greeted the waitress. ‘How dee body?’ he said in a singsong timbre. ‘Dee body fine,’ the woman replied with a welcoming smile. I tried to follow the pair’s conversation in Krio, Sierra Leone’s official language, but could identify only a few words of the English-based dialect that freed slaves had brought back to Africa.

… From the moment I had first heard about the dreaded Lassa virus, during my second year of medical school in a sterile California classroom that now felt very far away, I had been drawn to the illness. The disease is one of four famed VHFs (including Ebola, Marburg, and Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever) that share a terrifying tendency to spread from person to person, as well as a gruesome clinical picture of massive bleeding frequently leading to death. … During that time, Lassa became a symbol to me of something different, of foreign adventure and unquestionable need.


The Lassa Ward by Ross Donaldson: 3½ stars

Spineless: a book to look out for


Spineless by Susan Middleton (October 2014)

Here is a beautifully illustrated book to look out for: Spineless: Portraits of Marine Invertebrates, the Backbone of Life, by Susan Middleton.

I have no review, but here are some of the lovely images from the book. Wired and the Smithsonian Magazine have more. It looks fantastic!



Society of Biology Photography Competition

The Society of Biology has announced the winners of their 2014 amateur photography competition, which included some fantastic entries by young photographers. Click the camera image below to see the gallery, or read the story in Wired.

Ebola #7

While the ongoing Ebola outbreak continues to be of very great concern, there is some good news concerning cases outside Africa. In the chart below (updated from my past post), circles represent evacuated medical or other personnel, while squares represent other cases, including the three nurses infected by caring for patients (also, recovered patients are shown in green, and deaths in black):

Teresa Romero, the Spanish nurse, appears to be virus-free and recovering (hopefully the two US nurses will also recover quickly!). The chart also shows that (outside Africa):

  • there appears to have been no transmission outside the hospital context (no family members or casual contacts have been identified as infected so far – in particular, Thomas Duncan’s fiancée was not infected); and
  • transmission within the hospital context has occurred only when treating fatal cases of Ebola, and then only with two specific patients (and it seems that better protective clothing would have prevented transmission in those cases too).

While it is a terrible disease, Ebola does not seem to be as infectious as some people in the US fear.

In other good news, Nigeria is officially Ebola-free. However, Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone are still seeing a total of 100 or more new cases each day. Help is still urgently needed there, as this map by Mikael Häggström highlights:

Update 1: The chart at top has been updated with recent news.

Update 2: US nurses Amber Vinson and Nina Pham have also recovered and left hospital.

Update 3: Unfortunately, Mali has reported its first case of Ebola, and an American doctor recently returned from West Africa has tested positive for Ebola in New York.

Amphibian for the day: Salamandra infraimmaculata

Continuing the amphibian theme from the last post, here is one of the cards from my geographical educational card game, showing a public domain image of the beautifully coloured Near Eastern fire salamander, Salamandra infraimmaculata: