Monday, September 21, 2009

God Bless You

The offering arose during the Plague years. A sneeze was a sign that you'd contracted the fatal disease and whoever heard it assumed you were as good as dead. God bless you. You're about to die.

The plague bacterium has much to teach scientists about infection and ways to combat bacterial diseases. Malcolm Casadaban spent his career studying the plague, exploring its genetic blueprint in search of a way to breach bacterial walls and kill the pest. It's not the killing machine it once was, but a couple of thousand people catch the plague every year and there's a need for a more effective vaccine.

He used a government approved, modified form of Yersinia pestis, supposedly rendered harmless so that he could do his work with some degree of comfort.

Dr. Casadaban died of plague-related illness, the autopsy revealing nothing beyond some bacteria in his system. Those who were around him, from family to co-workers, are being offered a course of antibiotics as a precaution.

No one else developed the flu-like symptoms of the plague, so it's been suggested that the geneticist was somehow more prone to catching the disease. If the bacteria had mutated into a dangerous form in his lab, it would be expected that other people in the area would have become sick as well, but so far no other cases have been seen.

Those who live around the University of Chicago where Dr. Casadaban carried on his research do not need to be concerned about live bacteria floating around in the air. But will the Secret Service prevent the President from visiting his Chicago home, just to be on the safe side?

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