Deadly bacteria from all over just a plane ride away


Drug-resistant tuberculosis, which you can catch simply by breathing, may be on the way to your neighborhood. At this point, there is no effective vaccine.


It’s a bit late, but at least it’s something

As you may know, although I sometimes write fantasy fiction, I am pretty skeptical about the supernatural in real life.

My skepticism turns into alarm whenever someone employs magical thinking in a context where it could do real harm.

The leader of the largest faith-based group promoting the idea that prayer can “cure” homosexuality has finally admitted that it just doesn’t work. The preponderance of evidence collected by mainstream medicine and psychiatry over decades indicates that we all come out of the box with our sexual orientation hard wired.,0,7570124.story

Many years ago, I worked with a gay man who was raised in a deeply fundamentalist family. He and his lover, who had a similar background, were tormented by guilt.

They finally jumped off a mountain together, holding hands.

There are things more scary than needles


When I took freshman chemistry forty something years ago, my biggest concern was not what it should have been. It should have been to learn as much about chemistry as I could. Instead, I had another preoccupation.

I was terrified that my lab partner was going to kill me.

You must understand that, as far as I know, he didn’t wish me dead. He had signed up for chemistry only to fulfill his general science requirement, and he resented the university making him do things like that. His revenge was to do just barely enough studying to avoid flunking and to refuse to take anything seriously.

For example, he considered me a useful but annoying nerd (I was doing all the calculations for our experiments) for explaining to him that if you tightly seal a flask of liquid with a rubber stopper and then place it over a Bunsen burner, there is a decent chance that it will get mad and go boom in your face. Or that, yes, strong acids or bases do not make ideal skin lotions or eye drops.

(He was majoring in business administration, in case you’re interested. He thought science was a waste of his time. He saw no use in any knowledge that wasn’t directly involved in moving money around. I hope he isn’t somewhere making decisions about stuff like whether the crews on deep water oil rigs who are begging to have their worn-out equipment replaced ought to get their requests granted. Come to think of it, that would explain a lot.)

After heading off a few near-disasters, I dreaded going to chemistry lab. I hadn’t signed up to be a fire warden or a paramedic.

I think I actually screamed at him and nearly caused other accidents in the lab myself when he put his thumb over the top of a test tube containing hot, concentrated sulfuric acid and was about to give the contents a good shake and himself one less thumb. He was pissed off at me for making such a fuss.

Ignorance isn’t bliss; it’s pathetic.

I live in a paradoxical country where we have access to extraordinary fruits of science and technology, but where a big chunk of our kids leave school knowing far less about how the world works than their peers elsewhere in the developed world. As if that weren’t bad enough, this level of ignorance or indifference or even hostility to knowledge can be genuinely dangerous.

The June 2013 Scientific American has a piece on the steadily declining percentages of children being inoculated against a number of potentially dangerous infectious diseases.

In 1952 alone, during my lifetime, over 58,000 kids in my country contracted poliomyelitis. That’s about par with the total number of Americans who died in Vietnam. Many of those kids never walked again. Some ended up in iron lungs. Some of them died.

In the pre-vaccine era, my mother was scared to death, She had good reason to be. Her kids had no protection against polio.

In countries where they were conducted, aggressive campaigns to inoculate kids with the Salk and later the Sabin vaccine stopped such mass outbreaks, although, tragically, in some areas religious leaders (I believe the last group outbreak in the U. S. was within a religious community that refuses modern medicine) declared the vaccine to be contrary to their religion.

As a result, children in these areas have been crippled or killed unnecessarily. (It also certainly didn’t help that the U. S. has on occasion used vaccine programs as covers for intelligence gathering. Good move. Take people who are already xenophobes and give them reasons to distrust the innocent health worker who knocks on the door.)

If you choose not to inoculate your kids against a serious infections disease, you may get lucky and live in a place where the other parents are more sensible than you are. In that case, the odds of your kid running into an infected child are very low. Some figures you may have seen on the low risks of an unprotected child contracting a serious infection are based on the assumption that there is no almost no one around who’s infected.

It’s like saying you don’t need a seat belt if your car never leaves the driveway because a motionless car is involved in very few accidents.

However, as more and more parents buy into a lot of hysterical nonsense that inoculations are somehow evil because they aren’t “natural” or because they saw some crank’s website (although hardly anyone is as cranky as I) or a daytime talk show host attracting eyeballs for advertisers by promoting the scary idea that standard vaccines cause autism (the overwhelming evidence from dozens of studies indicates that they don’t, and the original paper that supported the connection between vaccines and autism was later withdrawn due to serious flaws that throw the conclusions into grave doubt) the percentages of unprotected kids has been steadily rising.

(Don’t believe me? Fine. There is an easy way to ignore the advice of  all those smarty pants doctors and scientists: tell yourself that there is a vast, highly organized, amazingly secret, and motiveless conspiracy by the entire planet’s medical and scientific community to use vaccinations to kill and cripple children just out of sheer meanness and spite. Guys selling beet and mouse turd soup as the real protection against infectious disease and cancer who tell you that vaccinations are evil are persecuted heroes who will one day be vindicated because, after all, some people said Galileo was nuts;  therefore, the experts are always wrong and the cranks are always right, even when they just make stuff up and the experts have a boatload of supporting evidence. Can’t fault that logic. However, if you believe things like that, you hardly need my advice. You’re already getting all the messages and guidance you need from the mother ship in orbit around Uranus.)

There are enough unprotected kids out there now that it’s a bit like the danger caused by a drought. Lots of very dry grass, one cigarette, and you have a killer brushfire.

All it takes is one infected kid walking into a school where five or ten percent of the kids are wide open to contracting something nasty, and some families could find themselves living a nightmare from over half a century ago.

I’m from way back then. It’s a destination you don’t want to visit in your time machine.

The threat from heavily medicated cyborgs

If you enjoy the time travel sort of science fiction story, you may have encountered a protagonist who travels into the past and is forced to accept primitive medical care. Imaging traveling to 1810, getting hurt, and waking to discover that some well-meaning sawbones is bleeding you dry with dirty instruments.

(By the way, it was amazingly hard to get rid of the practice of bleeding patients. I wish I could remember the particulars, but there was a 19th century statistician who collected a lot of data that showed conclusively that patients who had been bled had an alarmingly higher death rate than patients who hadn’t. The medical brotherhood wanted him flayed alive for daring to number-crunch such an ancient and venerable practice.)

Worse, in the past, doctors often had no choice but to start amputating parts of your body that had become infected. For several generations now, antibiotics have made this particular nightmare unusual, at least compared to the 19th century.

Well, if you are a Romantic who yearns to return to the Golden Past when most children died of infections before puberty and childbirth often resulted in the mother developing septicemia and leaving her newborn motherless, you are in luck!

There are too many patients demanding antibiotics for themselves or their loved ones who don’t understand that a cold or flu virus won’t even notice antibiotics, and that sometimes, yes, Virginia, people do die. Wonder why so many hospitals and nursing homes are terrific places to pick up something nasty? They are SEAL training camps for bacteria, where only the strongest survive.

Too many of us would rather turn our loved ones into heavily medicated cyborgs merely to keep their hearts beating indefinitely because, after all, life is exactly like a Disney movie, and, any second now, a miracle will occur, just like in that inspiring story on the Internet.

Yeah, right.

Our overuse of antibiotics has set up a process of natural selection, the kind of thing that pesky Charlie Darwin was always going on about. By saturating the environment with antibiotics, we have successfully evolved bugs that can swim a hundred laps in darn near any antibiotic that exists and go on to kill you without breaking a sweat.

(There is also a huge problem of routinely dosing meat animals with antibiotics—the drugged animals gain more weight and are thus more profitable—but that’s another story.)

Want an idea for a science fiction story? How about a visit to a hospital after the good old days have returned? Hurry! Write it before it becomes mainstream literature.