Alan Cassels is a pharmaceutical policy researcher at the University of Victoria and is a frequent contributor to HealthNewsReview.org.
It’s been a long, hot summer with no small amount of scary headlines. While we’ve covered the topic of summer scare-mongering before, what’s trending this summer is less random and more insect-and-critter obsessed. Bats, ticks, dog saliva, drunken wasps, and a vast array of parasites could truly turn this into a summer of despair (if judging by the headlines, that is).
I’d posit that beaches and summer fun have never seemed so dangerous since the summer of 1975, when Peter Bentley’s novel Jaws hit the big screen, producing a Hollywood-sized level of fear which kept millions of beachgoers at home. The recently released sure-to-be-blockbuster movie The Meg shows us once again, nothing focuses the mind like the chances of getting chewed on by a great white shark, even though the likelihood of that happening are less than the chances of being crushed to death by a vending machine.
Topping the list of summer scare stories has to be Reader’s Digest’s list of “12 Scary Diseases You Didn’t Know You Could Catch at the Beach,” which lists a variety of dangers such as Legionnaire’s disease, hepatitis A, swimmer’s itch, norovirus and even the possibility of hookworm by stepping in infected dog poop.
There are infinitesimal chances of getting most of the scary diseases (or animal attacks) being reported this summer, but that doesn’t change the fact that many readers are captivated by rare but potentially deadly nasties.
The common denominator in most of these stories is the simple fact that being outside is a recipe for disaster. What other features have stood out for a truly scary story? Let’s do a brief rundown:
For starters, the stats look scary, such as those in this CNN story about a parasite known as cyclospora. We learn that there have been “206 cases of cyclospora infections reported by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from the first of May to the beginning of August,” which is “a 134% increase from the 88 cases reported over the same time period in 2016.”
Let’s do the math here. If there are 325 million people in the US, then an American’s chance of getting a cyclospora infection in 2016 was 0.000027% and that “jumped” to a mere 0.000063%, an absolute difference of 0.000036%. These “US outbreaks have been linked to imported fresh produce such as basil, cilantro, lettuce, raspberries and snow peas,” CNN tells us. Does this vanishingly small increase in risk (maybe about 1 in 30 million) of getting the infection that can cause watery diarrhea, nausea and cramping really mean one should stop eating these products? Probably not.
According to this Gizmodo story, “Lyme disease is a bigger risk to more people in the United States than ever before” — or so says a senior medical director for Quest Diagnostics. His company released a report on Lyme disease hypothesizing that these “significant rates of increase” may back up other research showing that climate change could be allowing ticks to live longer. Which means more concern and more potential danger to the public.
But what is really at stake here?
The punchline: “Physicians who suspect their patients might have been exposed to the bacteria causing Lyme disease can order laboratory tests to confirm the presence of Lyme or other tick-borne diseases.” Who makes the lab tests? Yep: Quest Diagnostics. What’s truly scary here is how this conflict of interest wasn’t reported.
At the more bizarre end of the spectrum of summer scaremongering is the “lick of death” story reported in the Washington Post and CBS (among others). A man apparently developed sepsis resulting in multiple amputations after being licked by a dog carrying the Capnocytophaga canimorsus bacteria. While that is a truly horrific story of woe, how worried do we need to be of getting licked by a dog or cat? Here the message seems to be “Very Worried” or, alternatively, “Not Worried at All.”
CBS reported that CDC data shows that “many Capnocytophaga species are considered normal bacteria commonly found in the mouths of humans, dogs, and cats. In fact, up to 74 percent of dogs and up to 57 percent of cats have Capnocytophaga detected in their mouths.” Yet consider this extra factoid: The infection caused by this bacteria is so rare as to be almost nonexistent, and this study said there have been 484 laboratory confirmed cases since 1961.
Let’s see, 484 cases in 57 years. That’s about 8 per year. Even so, in their mission to protect the public, the CDC says if you use alcohol excessively, don’t have a spleen, have cancer, diabetes or HIV or have a compromised immune system, (which is quite a few Americans) you should call “the doctor immediately to describe your animal contact.” They add that “antibiotics are needed to treat a Capnocytophaga infection and should be started as soon as possible to prevent further complications.”
If you take this list of immune-compromised people, add in the huge rate of dog ownership in this country, then clearly the CDC is saying that a good portion of the US population should be quite concerned about the lick of death.
Cue the pharmacy cash registers. (Here’s where I remind people that dog bites are the bigger problem, especially for kids.)
In a strange story of overly helpful humans trying to help a sickly bat, the Austin American-Statesman quotes Austin Public Health (sounding very much like a stern police report) that a few weeks ago “multiple females were seen picking up a bat from the sidewalk and handling it while trying to give it water.” Because the bat tested positive for rabies, the city launched a manhunt for the infected bat’s well-meaning but wayward caretakers. The story then reminds us that rabies is bad, very bad.
Yes, rabies is no cake walk, but let’s not forget that rabies, especially in humans, is extremely rare (about 1-3 cases reported each year in the US). That risk is even lower if you’re aware that picking up ailing bats is probably not a great idea. That low-risk reality didn’t make its way into the Statesman story.
Healthline warns readers a “new Lyme disease” is on the horizon. The emerging infection, from the bacteria Borrelia miyamotoi, is in the same group of bacteria that causes Lyme disease, but adds the caveat that “doctors say people shouldn’t panic.”
Why? Because we learn–despite the story’s whole premise–that it’s quite a stretch to compare this bacteria to Lyme disease, as the only thing the two have in common is that they are carried by the same ticks. So far there’s been 60 reported cases, and so there’s hardly a huge cause for concern. That story did helpfully mention that there are treatments for this new disease and goes into considerable detail about what you can do to prevent tick bites.
In the category of the truly eye-opening is a weird story in the Washington Post about the British artist Ben Taylor, who in 2015 was diagnosed with a parasitic infection known as Loiasis. (Or, more vividly, “African eye worm.”) Taylor complained about the symptoms for several years and got little help from the medical system. We learn that he had spent some time in Gabon, a central African country where he probably picked up the Loa loa worm. We learn that it’s “typically passed on to a host body through bites from insects, in this case, from deer flies,” according to the CDC. And the CDC tells us how to diagnose this parasite, but the real question is: Are there deer flies here in America that carry the Loa loa parasite? We don’t know and we don’t find out. What we do learn, though–and this is the interesting and macabre part of the story–once discovered it can be removed. Taylor’s procedure involved a doctor who “scalped a tiny part of his eye’s outer layer and pulled out the wriggling parasite.” It was an inch-long Loa Loa roundworm. After his doctor placed it in a container, “Taylor watched it die.”
But one might ask: Why is this news now? Should we be worried? No: It’s because Taylor painted this month’s cover of Emerging Infectious Diseases, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The managing editor was looking “for an image that would fit the month’s theme: parasites,” and stumbled across Taylor’s painting, which he named “the Host.”
Last but not least, Fox News–taking a page from the UK’s Daily Mail— reports on drunk and angry wasps. As someone particularly allergic to wasp stings, this story has some resonance for me. Apparently “lager lout” wasps have been chasing down British residents, “after getting drunk drinking fermented fruit and leftover pub-garden cider, stinging anyone and everyone they can find.” The theory is that the angry wasps are boozing it up on fermenting fruit partly due to the cold winter Britain just had, which allowed the wasps build “larger than normal” nests.
Is there a moral of the story here? Not apparent to me, other than as one who is somewhat fearful of regular, old wasps, having drunk and angry ones hell-bent on stinging me does raise the fear factor somewhat. But mostly it’s just funny.
So let’s wrap up. What’s happening here? One thing none of these stories adequately cover is the psychological burden of telling us all to be afraid. Be very afraid.
It’s a message that taps deep into our lizard-brain survival instincts, and it’s a surefire click producer during this lethargic season for health news.
We have a different take. Our prescription might be a tall cool drink and a few hours in the hammock in the shade. In other words: Don’t worry. Be happy.