Friday, October 28, 2011

Celebrating fall and family

Fall is my favorite time of year. We are finally getting a break from the scorching Texas summer. The cooler temperatures are pleasant, without the cold bite of winter. It's the perfect setting for family adventures, particularly with my son old enough to really appreciate the fun brought by the changing seasons. His pronunciation of his favorite word (outside) is improving. "OUT-tide, OUT-tide," he says in a sweet, little exclamation; the emphasis and rise and fall of his voice make it almost a song.

Yesterday evening, son helped me carve his first pumpkin (selected during our earlier Pumpkin Patch outing). He watched, somewhat impatiently, while I cut a lid into the top of our pumpkin, and then he eagerly dove into the gooey center with his spoon. He would pause to flick the seeds off of his spoon or figure out how the pumpkin lid fit back into place. After a while, son ran into the yard to get a better look at a dog passing on the trail. He shared his excitement with an enthusiastic imitation: "awoo, awoo!" He circled back to my pumpkin-cleaning project between other investigations, such as his sand/water table, the grill, the back door, etc. Hubby snapped pictures as I turned my hands and wrists orange in the struggle to gut the pumpkin.

We eventually moved inside to do the more intricate carving. Son took a break to read a book on the couch, checked out mommy's progress in the kitchen, played music on a long-standing favorite toy, and found himself a snack in the pantry (he brought me a box of the tubes we keep around for on-the-go snacking). We have been opening our windows in the evening, and I think the cool air only ups son's energy level. We can barely keep up!

On Halloween, son will dress up as a Starfleet Academy science cadet for day care festivities. I am making pumpkin sandwiches (grilled cheese cut into pumpkin shapes) that he can share with the other toddlers in his room. Other moms are bringing their contributions in the form of fruits and sweets. The children will also parade through the rooms in the day care for goodies and participate in other Halloween-related games. That evening, his Aunt and Uncle are coming over to help son hand out goodies to the bigger kids.

Family and friends are planning to visit us in our new home in November. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law are coming up next weekend, as are some friends and their young son. Our church and community are both holding Fall Festivals, which we hope son will enjoy. We are also taking him to weekly swimming lessons (indoors). Thanksgiving brings my parents home from Korea for a short visit, so the Ripley family gathering will commence with their arrival. We are planning to ply them with Tex-Mex, Dr Pepper, and Blue Bell, but we will also savor our traditional potluck-style Thanksgiving dinner.

Please share your family traditions and adventures. Feel free to include recipes. With the weather cooling, I'm ready to make use of my oven again. I already made pumpkin bread to share with my Newsletter Committee and co-workers. What are you doing to celebrate fall and family?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Deadly Black Death bacteria hasn't changed, but we have

This is a follow-up to my previous blog, Black Death revealed and how research leads to preparedness. I recommend that you use the link above to read that blog first, for more details on the topic of this blog. If you have already done so, please proceed with your reading.

According to a journal article published earlier this month in Nature, the first genome sequence of an ancient bacterial pathogen has been completed. Yersinia pestis was extracted from the teeth of victims buried in a medieval cemetery. The results of the sequencing are really interesting.... Y. pestis, which caused the bubonic plague called the Black Death, hasn't really changed. There are only a few dozen changes among the more than 4 million DNA building blocks.

Before you get scared, you might want to refer to the title of this blog. The bacteria hasn't changed, but we have. Whew! Apocalypse averted, right?

The Black Death was deadly because of a combination of circumstances. In 1348, the climate was getting colder, the world was in the midst of a long war and horrible famine, and people were moving into closer quarters. All of these factors contributed to give the disease easy reach for infection and spread. In addition, people did not have any innate immune response; this was the first time the disease had attacked humans.

Today, simple antibiotics, such as tetracycline, can beat the bacteria. Interestingly, Y. pestis does not seem to have properties that enable other germs to become drug-resistant. Combine that with improved medical treatment, preparedness, and response by the health community, and we're set to avoid another plague-driven least where the Black Death is concerned.

Other possibilities, both bacterial and viral, remain open for speculation by science fiction writers with vivid imaginations. Take the flu, for example....

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A writer's fortune

I broke my cookie along the folded center and pulled out the slip of paper. "You are a lover of words, someday you should write a book."

That's certainly the most applicable fortune I have ever received. Despite my itch to tweak the punctuation, I'm using the reminder as the boost in the backside that I deserve. Time to get back to book re-writes. I have a few new stories steeping, but I'll let them brew up to strength while I focus on Dormant.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Debunking flu myths: Why you should get your vaccination now

I hope that you'll allow me to step back onto my vaccination soapbox for a moment.

I just read a news story that chilled this mother's heart. Four-and-a-half-year-old Amanda Kanowitz was healthy until she began to show her first symptoms—cough, low fever, and vomiting. Her doctor suspected a common childhood bug and recommended fluids and rest. Three days later, her parents found her lifeless in her bed.

Amanda had the flu. Seven years ago, when she died, doctors did not recommend shots for kids her age. That has changed. Now the CDC recommends flu shots for everyone over 6 months old.

I hate to be the one to pass along such a sad story, but I am doing so in the hope that it will help save lives. Only 43% of Americans got a flu shot last year, and that was a record year. The article that I read, on how to "Separate the facts from flu fiction," ran through several common flu myths. I'll highlight two, but I urge you to read the article for more information.

Myth 2: The flu shot causes the flu.
About 35% of consumers think the flu vaccine can cause flu, CVS found. But that's impossible, CDC says, because the viruses in the flu shot are dead. Its most common side effect is a sore arm. Mist nasal spray contains weakened viruses, so they don't cause severe symptoms, either. Side effects in kids can include a runny nose, wheezing and headache.

Myth 4: Only sickly people need a flu shot.
Half of consumers think flu shots are only for kids or sick people, CVS found. Actually, the most vulnerable members of society, such as newborns or those with weak immune systems, often can't get flu shots. The only way to protect them is to vaccinate everyone around them, keeping flu viruses out of circulation, Bergen says. Because babies can't be vaccinated until they're 6 months old, they depend on vaccinated friends and family members to create a "cocoon" of protection, Bergen says.
I'm sure that you have already read my past blogs on the flu and vaccines (right?), but on the off chance that you haven't, here's a link to my posts on vaccination. If you still need to get your flu shot, please go to your nearest pharmacy (many of them are located in your local grocery store) and take a few minutes to protect yourself and your loved ones. If you have already received your flu shot, here's a big THANK YOU from me and my family.

Friday, October 14, 2011

My newsletter: Rabies testing, flu surveillance, handwashing, and more

I just finalized another of my quarterly newsletters. While it would be hard to create a lead article as dear to my heart as the one in the July 2011 issue that featured my son's photo, I still found it fascinating. I had to ask a lot of questions to write the lead article; a couple of Rabies laboratorians were very helpful.

The second article features an ongoing influenza surveillance project. While it delves into more technical details, I hope the opening shows you why this kind of analysis is so important.

Countless times throughout the day, I reach for the Camelbak bottle perched to the right of my monitor. As I suck down a long swig of icewater, I take the safety of the contents for granted. Fortunately our Environmental Laboratory is watching out for me, as illustrated in the third article.

For those who submit specimens, we also highlighted our online results reporting, but my readers here might want to skip to the handwashing article. (Incidentally, the simple word "handwashing" was quite the topic of research during the editing process: handwashing, hand washing, hand-washing...? Which is it? We settled on the version used by the CDC in their handwashing tutorial.) I believe strongly in handwashing, as highlighted in a previous blogs. Please read the article to find out more about why it is so important.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Update from the Belly Button Biodiversity Team

This blog is an update for those who have been following my posts on the Belly Button Biodiversity Project. I hadn't heard anything further from the team, until I received the email below. Now the important question:  Did I put my new address on my request?

Dear Belly Button Biodiversity Enthusiast,

Great to hear from you!

We've had a tremendous amount of interest in our project, and well, because we're a team of humans and not robots, we've been overwhelmed by the sheer number of requests we've received for sampling kits.

Rest assured, we have your contact info and will be sending out sampling kits as soon as we can, most likely within the next few weeks. We appreciate your patience, as we're just as excited to learn about the microbes living in your navel as you are!

While you're waiting, check out some of the exciting articles and news affiliated with belly buttons and the other wildlife inhabiting our homes and bodies: And don't forget to like our Facebook page!

The Belly Button Biodiversity Team

Monday, October 10, 2011

Post-move update: New home and randomness

Sunset over the lake
Having neglected my blog for most of last week, I thought I'd fill you in on what is happening in my life. (Which means this blog will be a bit more personal than usual; I reserve the right to do this occasionally.) I keep waiting for things to slow down, but it never seems to happen. That isn't a complaint. While I wouldn't mind a few more quiet moments here and there, my life is busy because it is full and fulfilling.

Our move is almost complete. Most of the remaining delay is lack of time without toddler assistance. (Though the endeavor has not been aided by assorted colds and tummy troubles.) A few items remain at the apartment, but we're gradually clearing those out as opportunity presents to take a trip here and there. Unpacking continues at the house. At the current rate, I estimate at least a month before we dismantle the mountain of boxes. Even that may be optimistic. We take a bit of time each day just to appreciate the beauty of our new home, like the view of the sunset over the lake.

Fun in the back yard
My son is starting to settle in too. He has gone a couple of nights without waking and being unable to go back to sleep. (His parents are extremely grateful.) He delights in playing in the back yard and has taken to going to the back door asking, "ide? ide?" in the cutest little chirp of a question when he wants to go outside. Once out, he gleefully flings sand and water (from his Sand & Water Table), takes walking excursions into the back yard (stopping to wave and say "bye"), and splashes happily with the hose and bucket. He keeps up a running chatter as he points out various things, with appropriate words/sound effects. Examples: a doggy fetch stick—left out from visits by my sister's German Shepherd—ducks, people walking on the trail, and dogs. 

Fortunately, my packed weekend started on Friday. While waiting for the shop to finish repairs to our secondary vehicle, hubby and I used our primary vehicle to ran errands that resulted in the purchase of a couple of ottoman/table combos for the living room and elements for my son's new space-themed room. We also completed his Halloween costume and found bigger footie pajamas. I took my son to Sabbath School and my cat to the vet. I enjoyed an all-too-brief visit from my siblings and their families, went grocery shopping, and a stopped by the apartment for my vacuum cleaner and carefully-wrapped wedding gown.

I'm limping along on my old computer, which happened to be the one accessible when we set up our Internet, and planning to dig out the newer computer this weekend.

Currently reading:

A quote for thought, from the first-listed book above:

"...writing is all about getting happy. Writing is never a hobby. Neither is it a dilettante activity for which we salvage some leftover time from our otherwise busy days. Writing feeds those days. On the days when I don’t write, I underperform as an employee and as a human being.  

In fact, I think my boss or the U.S. government should pay me for the time I spend at home with my morning coffee and my journal. That—not the conference-room pep talks—makes me a happier, more focused employee.  

I write. Therefore I work. Simple as that."

Monday, October 3, 2011

The beginning of the end for the flu virus?

Vaccines have been the weapon of choice against viruses, and I have talked about them here on several occasions. Now research is exploring a new therapy: an antiviral drug called Double-Stranded RNA Activated Caspase Oligerizer (DRACO). Catchy name aside, what does DRACO do? It targets cells that have been infected by a virus, hunting the signature mechanism by which viruses reproduce.

The majority of viruses reproduce in four steps:
  1. Fixation and entry of the virus into the targeted cell.
  2. Copy the genes of the virus using the cell’s power.
  3. Bundling of virus particles.
  4. Emergence of many copies of the new virus to spread the infection to other cells.
Dr. Todd Rider and his colleagues from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are targeting the second step in the viral reproductive process. When their genetic material is copied inside the cells, the virus produces a structure called “double-stranded RNA”; because this unique structure is missing in non-infected cells, a protein tied specifically to the double-stranded RNA allows for the specific targeting of the cells containing the virus. By combining this protein with another protein that triggers cell death through apoptosis, it becomes possible to eliminate the infected cells without any side effects on the healthy cells.

Still with me? In short, DRACO targets cells with long strings of double-stranded RNA, causing them to commit cell suicide while ignoring the other healthy cells.

Dr. Rider's research has been tested on 15 different viruses, including H1N1 influenza, and it was effective against them all. The possible catch is that this research was primarily conducted on mammalian cells cultured in a lab, which leaves the possibility that the drug might not work on living animals. More recent work on the drug's effect on mice infected with influenza has continued to yield promising results.

If perfected, DRACO could revolutionize the treatment of viral diseases. Vaccines are effective, until the virus mutates. An antiviral drug could continue to work when vaccines fail. More research and time is needed to determine whether the new treatment is safe and effective for treating viral infection in humans.