Month: August, 2022

When New England Had A Vampire Problem

Vampires have been a part of folklore for hundreds of years, but in parts of New England in the 18th and 19th centuries, they were a very real. Let’s talk about the New England Vampire Panic.

TRANSCRIPT:

This is Salem Massachusetts, which famously got caught up in a witch craze in 1692 that led to the executions of 19 people. It was a society gone mad, overcome by fear and superstition. And it’s not the last time this happened.This is Salem Massachusetts, which famously got caught up in a witch craze in 1692 that led to the executions of 19 people. It was a society gone mad, overcome by fear and superstition. And it’s not the last time this happened.
In fact, 200 years later in 1892, you get the story of Mercy Brown.

Mercy Brown was the unassuming daughter of George Brown, a Rhode Island farmer whose life had just been through a series of tragedies.
Tuberculosis had been ravaging the area, they called it “consumption” at the time and in this outbreak George lost his wife Mary, his daughter, Mary Olive Brown, and in the same year Mercy Brown herself died of the illness.
And even as he was burying Mercy, his son Edwin became sick.
But if Mercy’s life had been unassuming, her death would be nothing of the sort.
Because two months later, a mob of people from the town of Exeter dug up Mercy’s body, pulled out her heart and set it on fire.
Mercy unfortunately got caught up in a Salem Witch style mass hysteria event that took place in New England in the late 1800s. Only they didn’t think Mercy was a witch… They thought she was a vampire.

Just to put that time period into perspective, this was the 1890s, the Gilded Age, we had lightbulbs and telephones, transatlantic steamships… Mercedes had its first car on the road at this point.
We even had the germ theory of medicine, though it was still in its early days and hadn’t been universally adopted. In a lot of areas the old folk remedies and superstitions held sway.
And rural New England was one of those places.

By the way, Mercy Brown was not an isolated event, another story involves Rachel Harris of Manchester, Vermont.
This was about 100 years earlier in 1790, but Rachel died from tuberculosis. Her husband then married her stepsister, Hulda, who also started to show signs of TB.
And yeah, the local townspeople thought that it was Rachel’s fault. That she was escaping her grave at night and enacting revenge on her stepsister.
So they exhumed Rachel’s corpse in February 1793. They removed her heart, liver, and lungs and burned them on a blacksmith’s forge.

This was a big event by the way, 500 people showed up to take part in this. In fairness, there probably wasn’t a whole lot else to do in 1793 Vermont.
Regardless, despite their valiant efforts, it didn’t stop Hulda from dying in September of that year. 
So, this was a real thing, people were really convinced that vampires existed and preyed on the living.
But these aren’t exactly the vampires we think of today. Today we’ve seen vampires imagined in just about every way possible, from Count Dracula, to Edward Cullen from Twilight, and Grandpa Munster from The Munsters.

But all vampires in fiction have a few core characteristics in common:

  • They drink human blood
  • They can turn their victims into vampires
  • They prey on their victims at night because the sun kills them
  • They have hypnotic powers
  • And they can’t see their images in mirrors and have no shadows.

Of course a lot of what we now think of as a vampire was first popularized by Bram Stoker when he wrote Dracula in 1897.

He was the first person to take all these folk stories about vampires and codify them in a way.
It’s thought that he named the character Dracula after Vlad III, who ruled an area of modern day Romania called Wallachia from 1456-1462.
His father was Vlad the second, who went by Vlad Dracul, meaning Vlad the Dragon. So Vlad the third was called Dracula.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vlad_the_Impaler

He was also called Vlad the Impaler, because he got a kick out of impaling his enemies on wooden stakes.
And it was also said he enjoyed dining among his dying victims and would dip his bread in their blood. Which is horrifying… And really unsanitary.
Another historical figure that may have inspired Bram Stoker is a Hungarian countess named Elizabeth Báthory.

If you’ve never heard of Elizabeth Báthory, it’s probably because she KILLED EVERYONE WHO MET HER.
It’s rumored that she tortured and murdered more than 600 young women during the 16th and 17th centuries. And she would even bathe in the victim’s blood.
It should be noted that these accusations may have been politically motivated and completely untrue, but they tied into beliefs that people already had about monsters drinking the blood of others.

These stories go back to the middle ages as plagues began to spread throughout Europe. People didn’t know what was going on, and often turned to folk takes and the supernatural to explain it.
For example, some of the victims of the plague had mouth lesions that bled, and some thought that their mouths were bloody because they were drinking other people’s blood.

The point is there are a few diseases that historians think were related to vampire stories.
The first one isRabies
In 1998, neurologist Juan Gomez-Alonso published a paper in Neurology that argued the symptoms of rabies might explain vampire myths. https://n.neurology.org/content/51/3/856
Rabies lyssavirus causes rabies in animals. It’s transmitted through direct contact with saliva or brain/nervous tissue from an infected animal.
Rabies infects the central nervous system. Once it reaches the brain, it can cause things like agitation, anxiety, confusion, and hallucinations before killing the victim.

Yeah, have you ever really looked into rabies? Rabies SUCKS.
People with rabies… go rabid. They bite and scratch and claw at people like a wild animal.
Seeing a person do that might put some ideas in your head.
The article also mentions that people who die from rabies often die from suffocation or cardiorespiratory arrest.
This can make the blood less likely to coagulate and slow the decomposition, which to some people might look like the dead person is more undead than dead.
He also pointed out correlations in rabies outbreaks and the birth of vampire tales in the 1720s in Eastern Europe.

In fact, one physician in 1733 got closer than he thought when he described vampirism as, “a contagious illness more or less of the same nature as that which comes from the bite of a rabid dog.”

But another contender is Porphyria
So, rabies may explain the biting and scratching parts of vampire lore, but other characteristics could be explained by a blood condition called porphyria.
For people with porphyria, their bodies don’t make heme, which is an essential part of hemoglobin, that’s what carries oxygen in our blood.
There are two, broad types of porphyria:- Acute porphyrias which affect the nervous system- Cutaneous porphyrias that affect the skin

The most common type of acute porphyria is acute intermittent porphyria, which causes sudden and painful attacks.
These attacks may include seizures, breathing problems, and red or brown urine. (which one might expect one’s urine to look like if one were drinking a lot of blood)
And these attacks are often set off by triggers, including stress, medications, and sunlight.

Similarly the skin porphyria is set off by sunlight and can cause blisters or excessive hair growth
Porphyria cutanea tarda (PET) is the most common form of cutaneous porphyrias. It is characterized by extreme sensitivity to sunlight.
If exposed to sunlight, people with PET might experience skin blisters, excessive hair growth, and red or brown urine.

So… They’re burned by sunlight, so they only come out at night, and they have red pee. Like they’ve guzzled so much blood, their urine is red.
And actually one of the treatments for porphyria was to drink animal blood.
People have even speculated that repeated porphyria attacks may cause facial disfigurement and gums to recede, leading to the teeth having a “fanged” look.
Oh, and believe it or not, garlic has a high sulfur content, and thus can make it a potential trigger for a porphyria attack.
So there’s a lot of interesting connections there, and I definitely could see people mistaking that disease for vampirism, but I don’t think that’s where it all came from.
Porphyria is a very rare disease so it’s unlikely that all the vampire myths came from the very few people walking around with that. However, seeing someone like that back in the day may have reinforced any belief they had.

But the disease that’s most associated with vampires is Tuberculosis

Tuberculosis is especially associated with the New England vampire beliefs in the 18th and 19th centuries.
A bacteria called Mycobacterium tuberculosis causes TB, which destroys lung tissue and can be fatal if not treated properly.
People who experience untreated TB lose weight, become weak, have fevers, and can cough up blood.
It basically makes a person look like blood is being slowly drained out of their bodies, like they wake up every morning a little bit paler than the day before. Like something it taking it from them in the middle of the night.
TB can also spread from person to person through the air, but most people back then didn’t know how that worked.

So, it’s no wonder they may have thought a supernatural creature was sucking the life out of those dying from TB. And usually that creature was someone who had recently died.
By the way, while we’re at it, there are other supernatural myths that may have a disease to thank.

Werewolves

Werewolves may have also been inspired by rabies for all the reasons I listed before, there’s also a a condition called lycanthropy that makes people hallucinate that they are a four-legged animal.
There is also hypertrichosis, which in some types causes hair to grow all over a person’s body, giving them a little Teen Wolf flavor.

Witches

Witches are sometimes associated with ergot poisoning, which is a wheat fungus that can cause manic episodes and hallucinations.
But in the case of the vampire craze in 18th and 19th century New England… It was TB.
A disease that so appears to consume the body that they actually called it Consumption. It’s easy to see why one might suspect it’s something else consuming the body. Maybe someone who had just died. Someone like Mercy Brown.

As tuberculosis ravaged nearby Exeter, the townspeople began to suspect things, maybe out of desperation. They started looking around for patterns.
And while everybody had suffered in this outbreak, maybe none more so than George Brown, who had lost is wife, his two daughters, and now his only son was sick as well.
I can only imagine that when some of the townspeople came to visit, shovels in hand, insisting on digging up his family, George was just too exhausted to object.
They dug up his wife Mary and older daughter Mary-Olive, but they had deteriorated to the point it wasn’t possibly them. But Mercy, who had only been in the ground for 2 months in the winter… looked remarkably fresh. In fact, her hair and nails seem to have grown a little and blood still pooled in her body.

So they did the thing the folk tales say to do… they took out her heart, burned it and mixed the ashes into a potion for Edwin to drink. This would hopefully cure him of the vampire curse.
It didn’t. He died a few months later.
The Mercy Brown story did make some headlines and in fact, clippings of these articles were found in Bram Stoker’s files after he died, so he did know about it and may have even been inspired by https://newengland.com/today/living/new-england-history/vampire-mercy-brown-rhode-island/
The vampire panics started to die down in the 20th century when medical knowledge improved and tuberculosis became treatable with antibiotics. In fact Mercy Brown was one of the very last “confirmed” vampires in America.

The vampire panics started to die down in the 20th century when medical knowledge improved and tuberculosis became treatable with antibiotics. In fact Mercy Brown was one of the very last “confirmed” vampires in America.  

Today, her gravesite is a tourist attraction. Visitors to her grave may see gifts left behind, like jewelry and flowers.
Or in one case, a note that just said, “You go, girl.”

Analyzing Webb’s First Images with Christian Ready – Episode 15

Christian Ready is an astronomer and professor at Towson University in Maryland, he worked previously at the Space Telescope Science Institute and NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, and he shares his expertise and excitement for all things space on his YouTube channel, Launch Pad Astronomy. Today, he joins me to take a deeper look at the first images to come out of the James Webb Space Telescope, talk about what a big deal this is, and basically nerd out about the cosmos for a while.

Go check out his YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/c/ChristianReady

Is Monkeypox A Real Problem Or Just Clickbait?

The headlines have been breathlessly warning of a new outbreak of the Monkeypox virus, and the WHO just declared it an international emergency. Are we really on the verge of yet another pandemic? Is monkeypox something you should be worried about? Or is it just clickbait? Let’s take a look.

TRANSCRIPT:

A pox upon ye.

That’s right everyone, COVID-19 is so last season, the new hotness on the plague scene is Monkeypox.
So do you want to be on-trend with the latest and greatest disease outbreak in town, then stick around because we’ve got the ins and outs on Really? Another pandemic? Really?

Here We Go Again

Well, we had a good run. There were a few weeks there where it looked like Covid was finally starting to wane, or at least become manageable. Things started feeling kinda normal again. (a beat) I remember normal.
But no… We can’t have that can we?

Not only are there new variants, Covid cases are on the rise again, but now we got a whole new pandemic. Or do we?
Yeah, Monkeypox has been all over the news lately but is it really a concern, or is this just a new thing the news shows are using to get you to stick around for the next commercial break?
Cynicism aside, Monkeypox does exist. And it’s been popping up all over the place so let’s take a look and see if we can get to the bottom of this.

Outbreak 2022

As of this recording, there are around 15,300 cases of monkeypox around the world. Now that doesn’t sound like a lot after what we’ve just been through with Covid but there’s a few things to keep in mind here.

First of all, that number is rising quickly. To give you an idea of how quickly, when my writer, Ryan, researched this video, his script said 5300 cases. So it’s 3 times higher now than it was when he submitted this script a couple weeks ago.
And it’s probably up quite a bit by the time you see this. I’ll put a link below that you can click to see where things are right now.

The other thing that’s notable is this map. Here you can see the most cases are in the US and Europe but you see these blue dots down here in Africa? That’s where Monkeypox has historically been seen. All this orange… That’s never really been seen before.

In fact, out of the 71 countries with monkeypox cases right now, 65 of them are seeing cases for the first time ever. So… yeah, this is a thing.
As for what’s happening in the US, again, at the time of recording this, New York has the most cases at 581, followed by California at 365, and then Illinois, Florida, basically the urban centers of the US.
The total number in the US is 2,323, but keep in mind that’s up from 19 cases at the beginning of June.
And yeah, I think it’s safe to say that we’re all a little shellshocked from Covid-19, because we all remember when we were all like, “oh, it’s just a few cases in Washington” and then suddenly there were thousands and then… well. Yeah. Here we are.

Monkeypox in Africa

Now I mentioned earlier those countries in Africa where monkeypox is normally found, the Democratic Republic of Congo has by far the most cases, with 1356 reported between January 1st and May 22, 2022.  Monkeypox had killed more than 70 people in Africa this year. According to the sources we found.

Why Monkeypox?

Now the fact that it’s been historically seen in Africa and it’s called monkeypox, you probably put 2 and 2 together and assume it got its name because there are monkeys in Africa and it jumped from monkeys to humans there. You would be wrong.
It actually came from Denmark.
It was first seen in monkeys kept at Denmark’s Statens Serum Institute, in 1958. It was first seen in humans 12 years later.https://www.who.int/emergencies/disease-outbreak-news/item/2022-DON388

Monkeypox is a type of orthopoxvirus, this is the same genus that includes cowpox, camelpox, and skunkpox. Didn’t know skunkpox was a thing did you?
It doesn’t include chickenpox, though, that’s a different type of virus but it does include – yikes – smallpox.

And the symptoms are similar to that of smallpox, including fever, exhaustion, headaches and swollen lymphnodes, and a rash of bumps that look like blisters or pimples.
Thankfully, what they don’t share is mortality rate. Before it was eradicated, smallpox had a mortality rate of 30%.  Monkeypox has a 1–10% mortality rate.

The Variants

Why “1-10%”? Because, just like coronavirus, there are a couple of variants. The variant from Central Africa is severe, the one from West Africa less so.
And it’s the milder variant that’s making its way around the world right now, so it’s unlikely monkeypox will become a deadly pandemic like COVID-19.
Unless, of course, it mutates.

Monkeypox, or MPV uses DNA to encode its genes. And that’s good because DNA is more stable and less prone to mutation than RNA viruses like say influenza and COVID-19.
But MPV has mutated in the past. And not for the better. That deadly version I talked about earlier was a mutation of the milder version.
And the more a virus spreads, the more chances it has to mutate. In fact a recent study suggests the exported variant has experienced “accelerated evolution”.

They studied samples collected in 2022 and compared them to samples from 2018 and 2019 and found about fifty DNA changes
hat’s at least six times the mutations researchers expected to find.  These mutations don’t appear to have made monkeypox deadlier.  But they may have made it more transmissible, in an unexpected way.

Past Outbreaks

In 2003, we saw monkeypox for the first time in the US and it was traced to pet prairie dogs. Because apparently that’s a thing.
Pet prairie dogs that were housed near pet exotic African rodents. Which gave it to the prairie dogs, which bit their owners and gave it to their owners. Just… so many bad decisions there.

You know, I used to think exotic pets were really cool, I liked the idea of having a pet that nobody else had, thought that made me interesting… I’m not sure I’m a fan anymore.
It seems like a lot of these pandemics and outbreaks are zoonotic viruses that jump from animals to people, often exotic animals of some kind.
It just seems like a vector that triggers a lot of other vectors, if that makes any sense.
So I get it, prairie dogs are cute but no… Just… no…

In fact, one of the fears about monkeypox being a zoonotic virus is that this can become a cycle of zoonotic transmission. We got it from prairie dogs, maybe it could jump to our cats and then bounce back to us, each time mutating it a little more. 
One interesting thing about this current outbreak is that back when it was only in Africa, cases were more common in rural areas, amongst hunters. But in this outbreak, you see it mostly in urban areas.
And that’s because though it’s not a sexually transmitted disease, it has mostly been spread through knocking the boots.

Is Monkeypox an STD?

This is actually where things do get a little prickly because it has been prevalent in gay communities, which of course some people have used to smear LGBT people.
Which outside of being gross and horrible is also dangerous because people generally don’t get tested or treated for stigmatized diseases, which only serves to spread it further.
Needs to be said again, just because it’s being spread by sexual contact does not make it a sexually transmitted disease.

And being called a “gay disease” brings up parallels to the early days of the AIDS crisis in the 80s.
Stigmatizing and moralizing it  led to it not being taken seriously and let it take a foothold that it otherwise might not have.

Official Status

And there are signs that that might be happening again. On June 25th, the WHO declined to declare monkeypox a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.
Setting aside the fact that P-H-E-I-C, pronounced FAKE, is the worst acronym ever, the decision is controversial.
There are concerns that lack of a PHEIC will discourage less-affected countries from fighting monkeypox now, instead of later.  Some may hoard vaccines.  Or they may simply wait so long, their outbreaks become critical, and they won’t have resources to help their neighbors.

Now, Monkeypox is not HIV. Not even close. But the best way to keep it that way is to prevent it from spreading and mutating.

Vaccines

One of the best ways to do that is with a vaccine. And we have one, a company called Bavarian Nordic makes it, and it’s approved for Monkeypox, but only like a million doses have ever been made.
Apparently people have tested using smallpox vaccinations, since they’re similar types of virus and they’ve been effective, but can be dangerous for people with compromised immune systems.

Fearmongering

So, is monkeypox the next Covid? Not likely, not in its current state. But that doesn’t mean it’s harmless.
Maybe the bigger question is, is this our future?  Are we doomed to bounce from one pandemic to another?  Will we ever be able to shake somebody’s hand without a creepy-crawly feeling again?

Pandemic History

The fact is, we evolved as isolated tribes of people who are now attempting to be a global species. And while there’s a lot of good that comes from our cultures mixing together, the downside is that yeah, our bugs get around.
In the past, this could lead to entire civilizations being wiped out – as we saw happen to the indigenous Americans.

Now all our cultures are colliding all the time. And if the grand story of humans is that we started as fragmented and isolated tribes that eventually became a global species, we’re in those awkward pre-teen years. The years when we haven’t fully stirred but we did just get thrown in the pot.
We’ve mixed enough to share our bugs but not enough to become immune to them.
Throw on top of that the encroaching of our habitats into nature, and the potential for a zoonotic virus to spillover goes through the roof as well.

Maybe we eventually get immune to all of them. Maybe new ones never stop coming and we’ll always be fighting something off. That’s probably a lot more likely.
The real story of the world is one of countless cells, all vying for supremacy. We’re just the only clumps of cells that became aware enough to know what’s going on.
Maybe that’s the way it’s been and that’s the way it always will be. Just whack-a-mole forever. Luckily most of them, like Monkeypox, are survivable. So maybe we should consider ourselves lucky.

So is Monkeypox something to be concerned about? Or is it just an overhyped clickbait? It’s a little bit of both.
Of course media companies are going to hype this to its clickiest level to get as many eyeballs as possible. Of course this is going to become pandemic porn.
And of course we’re all way more on edge about outbreaks of disease after what we’ve all been through. Or, the opposite, maybe crisis fatigue takes over and we just stop paying attention to it.
The best thing you can do right now is just be aware of the outbreak and take basic precautions. Monkeypox is only transmissible through close skin-to-skin contact. So you don’t have to worry about breathing it in. That’s good.

The CDC recommends avoiding close skin-to-skin contact with anybody that might have a rash that looks like blisters or bumps, don’t eat after or use utensils from someone who has monkeypox or looks like they might, don’t handle clothes or bedding used by anybody with monkeypox, and to wash your hands often with soap and sanitizer if you’ve come into contact with anybody with monkeypox.

And if you do have monkeypox, obviously they want you to isolate yourself until “all lesions have resolved, the scabs have fallen off, and a fresh layer of intact skin has formed.”
So if you’re scabby, stay inside. And if you meet someone who’s scabby, maybe knock somebody else’s boots.
Basically when it all comes down to it, some awareness and basic prevention is all that’s required here, but we can’t freak out over every outbreak that happens because well… we’re going to be seeing more of these.

 

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