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Mae Melvin, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Mae Melvin, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Guinea Worm Disease May Soon Be Eradicated

Mae Melvin, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Mae Melvin, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the 1980s, more than 3.5 million people contracted guinea worm disease (GWD), a parasitic infection spread through drinking water. But by 2014, that number was down to 126. Last year, only 22 people developed GWD, and so far this year, there have only been two confirmed cases, in Chad. Two. If this trend continues, by next year GWD could become the second ever human disease to be completely eradicated, NPR reports.

With the possible exception of helminth therapy, parasite infection is often harmful. Guinea worms (Dracunculus medinensis) start out as small larvae in a body of water. If that water isn’t filtered before someone drinks it, those larvae can enter a person’s body. Once inside the body, they quickly grow, reaching lengths of up to 3 feet before attempting to exit the body via a large blister. Like so many parasites, D. medinensis has a way of getting its host to help advance its spread; blisters are often hot to the touch, which drives infected people to submerge their limbs in water. Once in the water, the parasite can release its larvae, and the whole process starts all over again.

Infection with D. medinensis in itself isn’t fatal, but it can be incredibly painful. There is no vaccine to prevent GWD, and no medication to treat infection, so once the parasite has taken hold, the only way to rid someone of the worm to pull it out—a gruesome process that, in rural areas, can lead to more pain and infected wounds.

Fortunately, there’s a fairly simple solution: filtered water (even pouring it through a piece of cloth can help), and staying away from water in which infected people have been bathing. But spreading the word about those preventive measures has been tricky, as the last holdouts of GWD territory are rural areas and villages with little access to resources. Public health officials, who are typically outsiders who don’t speak the local language, have had a hard time finding a foothold to pass the message along. But in recent years, a combination of local education about how the disease spreads, new laws intended to keep infected people from entering a water source, and consequences for breaking those laws have made a huge dent in the number of cases.  

The fight against GWD was taken up decades ago by a powerful ally: Jimmy Carter. The former president has made GWD eradication, and disease eradication in general, a major priority for his Carter Center.

“We know every person in the world that has guinea worm,” Carter told mental_floss in 2015. “So we have to monitor villages that didn’t show a case last year and make sure that those cases that we have identified don’t go in the water and spread the disease to future drinkers … I don’t think there’s a doubt that in the next two or three years we’ll find the last case.”

[h/t NPR]

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Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
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Medicine
Bill Gates is Spending $100 Million to Find a Cure for Alzheimer's
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Not everyone who's blessed with a long life will remember it. Individuals who live into their mid-80s have a nearly 50 percent chance of developing Alzheimer's, and scientists still haven't discovered any groundbreaking treatments for the neurodegenerative disease [PDF]. To pave the way for a cure, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates has announced that he's donating $100 million to dementia research, according to Newsweek.

On his blog, Gates explained that Alzheimer's disease places a financial burden on both families and healthcare systems alike. "This is something that governments all over the world need to be thinking about," he wrote, "including in low- and middle-income countries where life expectancies are catching up to the global average and the number of people with dementia is on the rise."

Gates's interest in Alzheimer's is both pragmatic and personal. "This is something I know a lot about, because men in my family have suffered from Alzheimer’s," he said. "I know how awful it is to watch people you love struggle as the disease robs them of their mental capacity, and there is nothing you can do about it. It feels a lot like you're experiencing a gradual death of the person that you knew."

Experts still haven't figured out quite what causes Alzheimer's, how it progresses, and why certain people are more prone to it than others. Gates believes that important breakthroughs will occur if scientists can understand the condition's etiology (or cause), create better drugs, develop techniques for early detection and diagnosis, and make it easier for patients to enroll in clinical trials, he said.

Gates plans to donate $50 million to the Dementia Discovery Fund, a venture capital fund that supports Alzheimer's research and treatment developments. The rest will go to research startups, Reuters reports.

[h/t Newsweek]

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A New Analysis of Chopin's Heart Reveals the Cause of His Death

For years, experts and music lovers alike have speculated over what caused celebrated composer Frederic Chopin to die at the tragically young age of 39. Following a recent examination of his heart, Polish scientists have concluded that Chopin succumbed to tuberculosis, just as his death certificate states, according to The New York Times.

When Chopin died in 1849, his body was buried in Paris, where he had lived, while his heart was transported to his home city of Warsaw, Poland. Chopin—who appeared to have been ill with tuberculosis (TB)—was terrified of the prospect of being buried alive, and nostalgic for his national roots. He asked for his heart to be cut out, and his sister later smuggled it past foreign guards and into what is now Poland.

Preserved in alcohol—likely cognac—and stored in a crystal jar, Chopin's heart was laid to rest inside Holy Cross Church in Warsaw. (It was removed by the Germans in 1944 during the Warsaw Uprising, and later returned.) But rumors began to swirl, as the same doctor tasked with removing the heart had also conducted an autopsy on the composer's body, according to the BBC.

The physician's original notes have been lost, but it's said he concluded that Chopin had died not from TB but from "a disease not previously encountered." This triggered some scholars to theorize that Chopin had died from cystic fibrosis, or even a form of emphysema, as the sickly musician suffered from chronic respiratory issues. Another suspected condition was mitral stenosis, or a narrowing of the heart valves.

Adhering to the wishes of a living relative, the Polish church and government have refused to let scientists conduct genetic tests on Chopin's heart. But over the years, teams have periodically checked up on the organ to ensure it remains in good condition, including once in 1945.

In 2014, a group of Chopin enthusiasts—including Polish scientists, religious officials, and members of the Chopin Institute, which researches and promotes Chopin's legacy—were given the go-ahead to hold a clandestine evening meeting at Holy Cross Church. There, they removed Chopin's heart from its perch inside a stone pillar to inspect it for the first time in nearly 70 years.

Fearing the jar's alcohol would evaporate, the group added hot wax to its seal and took more than 1000 photos of its contents. Pictures of the surreptitious evening procedure weren't publicly released, but were shown to the AP, which described Chopin's preserved heart as "an enlarged white lump."

It's unclear what prompted a follow-up investigation on Chopin's heart, or who allowed it, but an early version of an article in the American Journal of Medicine states that experts—who did not open the jar—have newly observed that the famed organ is "massively enlarged and floppy," with lesions and a white, frosted appearance. These observations have prompted them to diagnose the musician's cause of death as pericarditis, which is an inflammation of tissue around the heart. This likely stemmed from his tuberculosis, they said.

Some scientists might still clamor at the prospect of testing tissue samples of Chopin's heart. But Michael Witt of the Polish Academy of Sciences—who was involved in this latest examination—told The Guardian that it was unnecessary to disturb what many consider to be a symbol of national pride.

"Some people still want to open it in order to take tissue samples to do DNA tests to support their ideas that Chopin had some kind of genetic condition," Witt said. "That would be absolutely wrong. It could destroy the heart, and in any case, I am quite sure we now know what killed Chopin."

[h/t The New York Times]

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