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Erik J. Scully
Harvard University, Villanova University
Harvard University, Villanova University

Erik J.'s posts

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When I am conducting research in western Uganda, I am always grateful for opportunities to discuss zoonotic disease, chimpanzee ecology, and wildlife conservation with local schoolchildren living near the border of Kibale National Park. Community engagement is a central tenet of the Kibale Chimpanzee Project and the Kibale Forest Schools Project. By promoting ecologically sustainable practices and reducing encroachment into forested habitat, we can simultaneously conserve areas of high biodiversity and reduce human exposure to potential reservoirs of zoonotic disease.
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The Ebola epidemic in West Africa is accelerating, now generating ~100 new cases per day. Nearly 5000 people have now been infected with the virus, about half of which have died. The estimated cost to help fight the outbreak is now $1 billion USD.

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No one should be surprised that we have underestimated the magnitude of this Ebola outbreak considering its diffusion through primarily rural channels. However, the numbers are staggering nonetheless. In 2000, Uganda--where I conduct field research on zoonotic viruses--witnessed the largest Ebola outbreak on record, infecting just over 400 people and killing around half as many. The 2014 outbreak has already surpassed this total by an order of magnitude, and the WHO projects the outbreak could reach 20,000 by the time it is (hopefully) quelled in 6-9 months. 

Healthcare professionals have emphasized the extremely low likelihood of sustained Ebola transmission in nations with robust healthcare infrastructure. Nevertheless, this outbreak has already stoked international pandemonium that will inevitably impact the global economy. The WHO has placed the cost of controlling this Ebola epidemic at nearly $500 million USD, and its true economic impact will likely be far greater. The SARS outbreak of 2003, which infected ~8000 people (with a ~10% mortality rate), cost Southeast Asian economies an estimated $50 billion USD. Although SARS is certainly an imperfect template for the current situation for a number of reasons (e.g., geographic scope, transmission mode), the sense of uncertainty engendered by these RNA viruses is certainly analogous. 

Clearly, there is an economic incentive to develop better strategies to identify and control "smoldering" localized epidemics before their ignition into geographically widespread pandemics. An ounce of prevention may be worth a pound of cure, but how can we move toward the prevention of diseases that seem to arise so sporadically and without warning? I would argue that such a strategy necessitates a more robust understanding of the interaction between pathogen evolutionary dynamics and reservoir host ecology, but that's a topic for another day. 

"The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is still picking up speed, according to new data from WHO today. More than 3069 cases have been reported, but WHO now says that as many as 20,000 people could ultimately be infected. A “road map” for bringing the situation under control estimates the cost at $490 million."

After long hiatus, I have returned to Google+. In the coming months, expect a barrage of posts concerning diverse topics including emerging infectious disease, zoonoses, RNA viruses, non-human primates, chimpanzees, wildlife ecology, and conservation. What newsworthy outbreak could possibly unite these diverse bodies of knowledge? Hint: Ebola isn't the only one.

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Tackling the global scourge: Nature calls for an intergovernmental panel on antibiotic resistance 
When antibiotics came on the scene beginning with the discovery of Penicillin, they were revolutionary saving the lives of millions and creating an albeit short lived visions of conquering deadly infectious diseases. With widespread use and often misuse with the most infamous being the widespread use of antibiotics as "growth promoters" for farm animals, the scourge of antibiotic resistance was an evolutionary certainty. After all most antibiotics (the lead molecules) existed in nature we stumbled on them and they were produced by environmental microbes (mostly fungi or streptomyces) to gain advantage over other microbes. Introduce sufficient selection pressures as would happen with widespread use in cattle feed, emergence of widespread resistance was natural. 
We have reached a situation, this is no longer isolated cases in remote places but a reality all over the world. If you are struck with a deadly resistant strain, there is little any one can do. In a competitive world driven by economics, global action is needed to control misuse of antibiotics and curtail their spread while increasing public funding for development of new classes of antibiotics. 
Significant part of the problem is the lack of investment in developing new antibiotics. Big pharmaceutical companies see little profit in antimicrobial. They would rather invest in money spinning sector like chronic lifestyle diseases or cancer where opportunities to extract ransom are greater. Here Mark Woolhouse and Jeremy Farrar call for an intergovernmental panel to coordinate global efforts in tackling this scourge. #antimicrobialresistance   #policy   #WHO  

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Carnivorous Plant Throws out 'Junk' DNA:

New research shows that the Utricularia gibba genome contains almost no noncoding DNA, demonstrating that vast quantities of this so-called "junk DNA" may not be necessary for complex life.

Read more:

[Article via: +Science Daily / +University at Buffalo / +Nature Publishing Group | Photo: A scanning electron micrograph shows the bladder of Utricularia gibba, the humped bladderwort plant. Via: Enrique Ibarra-Laclette, Claudia Anahí Pérez-Torres and Paulina Lozano-Sotomayor]

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Smacks and Wobbles

Gelada baboons live in the highlands of Ethiopia in very small troops, which band together in giant conglomerations to hang out in meadows and eat grass. There are a gazillion interesting things about them - for example, because they spend so much time sitting down and grazing, the usual place for sexual signals isn't visible. Instead, they have bright red patches on their chest - like most baboons' sexual swellings on their rumps, females' chest patches change in color and swell a little across the estrus cycle.

But what's gotten these guys in the news recently is their vocalizations. They chatter to eachother constantly. The similarities between gelada vocalizations, especially their periodicity and the required lip mobility to make these sounds, may be analagous to human language. Since this stuff is difficult, if not impossible, to reconstruct in the fossil record, showing that a living primate actually makes its vocalizations in similar ways to modern humans is very exciting! The Wired article includes video of geladas chatting to eachother, and it's hard to believe that it isn't human.

This short article is #openaccess  at Current Biology, so take a look!
Bergman TJ. Speech-like vocalized lip smacking in Geladas. Current Biology  23(7): R268-R269.

#scienceeveryday   #monkeymonday  

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Today's TED Talk: Monkeys that strategize and the neuroscience of game theory.
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