Thursday, January 20, 2011

Scientific Literacy in Children: Building the Basics

An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 (Newbery Honor Book)Fever 1793Some amount of scientific literacy is crucial to being a citizen in a democracy.  Part of my mission is to nourish this. What better place to start developing it than with babies and their parents.  There is an increasing amount of youth fiction and nonfiction portraying infectious disease.  Books such as Jim Murphy’s An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 and Laurie Halse Anderson’s historical fiction  Fever 1793, are great for the young to middle reader [more in later posts], but what about babies?

Babies love pictures—start with human body books and talk about pictures; you don’t have to go over everything.  You are not preparing them for college tomorrow and they’ll just cry and rip your book if overloaded.  Do pick one page, and get them used to hearing words like white blood cell, microbiology, microscope, or esophagus.  If you feel these are too long then try flea, chicken pox, lice or sick.  

Children’s brand-new knowledge becomes prior knowledge.  It's easier to build onto prior knowledge stepwise than to feed them lots of it in middle school.  All children [and adults] need to be exposed to language, literature, art, science, math, social situations, and life in general in order to learn and build up prior knowledge. 

Science is near and dear to my heart, and I’m a firm believer that you can have fun with this.  Here are some titles to share with your children, nieces, grandchildren, students and neighborhood kids in order to expose them to science and health-based literature.  The following are chosen because of great pictures.  Babies and older children can be read to.  Older children should be encouraged to browse and read them as well.

For Science Words and Fabulous Illustrations:

DK Eyewitness Books:  Epidemic by Brian Ward
Eyewitness DK: Epidemic
With babies, you can play the “What’s this?” game.  It is loaded with pictures and short descriptions [paraphrase for babies]. You can tell them that germs, bacteria and virus are teeny-tiny—we can’t see them with our eyes.  They will eventually catch on.  When they are four, this vocabulary will culminate into questions like “I’m not going to get polio because I got the vaccine, right?  I don’t want to be in a wheelchair”.  It’s a long and involved process, raising children.  Give them all the information they can handle, but in a fun way.

The Way We Work:  Getting to Know the Amazing Human Body, by David Macaulay with Richard Walker
The Way We WorkTalk about fun!  It’s  ribald, smart, well-illustrated, and adults can learn A LOT from it.  Starting with atoms and DNA it builds to all the systems and beyond.  I love all the systems he discusses [respiratory, circulatory, digestive, legal..?] on page 54 and 55.  It appears that the illustrations are done in colored pencil and they’re spectacular.  It has detailed immunology too!  “Battle Stations” is the title of Chapter 5 which includes the following topics:  wear and tear; blood, sweat, and hairs; uneasy peace; only a scratch; know your enemy; foreign food; drain and defend; clean and clone; antibody attack; flu alert; population explosion; killer cells; chemical warfare; weakened defenses; harmful rays; enemy within; overreaction; and a little backup.  Whew!

The Coolest Cross-sections Ever! By Stephen Biesty.
The Coolest Cross-Sections Ever!
I love to look at things in different ways.  I don’t have a lot of early learning experience with cross-section, but my kids can.  Among other things, the human body is drawn with infinite detail, with humor thrown in.  Think “Where’s Waldo” from an anatomist’s viewpoint.

Human Body Revealed, a DK book, by Dr. Sue Davidson and Ben Morgan
Human Body (DK Revealed)This book is illustrated in layers; pages add layers to the body.  It’s easy on the eyes and pretty easy to read, divided into sections of “Your Body”, “In Your Head”, “In Your Chest”, and so forth.  Again, like most DK books, short descriptions make if very readable for you and your children.

Hidden Worlds: Looking Through a Scientist's Microscope (Scientists in the Field Series), by Stephen Kramer and Dennis Kunke
Dennis Kunke is a scientist that takes amazing photographs through different types of  microscopes—dissecting, compound, scanning electron, and transmission electron. Children and adults need to see that not only is the world a large place, but smaller than the eye can see.  It describes projects that he has worked on.  There are photographs of him studying the algae on Mount St. Helens post-eruption!  It’s an outstanding book.

For later readers, a nonfiction and historical fiction book to start with:

An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 (Newbery Honor Book), by Jim Murphy
Jim Murphy has written many excellent books, but this is a first read in my mind.  It gives an excellent view of what happened in Philadelphia in 1793.  Follow up this book with…

Fever 1793, byLaurie Halse Anderson
A historical fiction work depicting the horrifying conditions of Philadephia and around Mattie’s family coffee house.  Not too terrifying for the younger, good reader, but gives a lot of detail about death, death carts, symptoms, bleeding [the treatment at the time], and vile smells.

Picture books if you prefer:

Ed & Fred Flea, by Pamela Duncan Edwards
Fred, the bad flea fakes having the flu.  His brother Ed and a tick jump for their lives [and not because of Fred].  

One Cow Coughs:  a Counting Book for the Sick and Miserable, by Christine Loomis
Cows do cough, and by using collage, Ms. Loomis shows you the animals and how sick they are and what they do to get better.  Me thinks that Frank McCourt wrote the title [not really, but it sounds like his Irish humor].

Who's Sick today? By Lynne Cherry
Rhymes about beavers with fevers and chicken with pox [even the eggs have pox].  Okay, it’s not truly accurate portrayal, but it’s fun.

In a fun way, it shows that fever and illness can spread…even to Daddy.   

Scritch, Scratch, by Miriam Moss and Illustrated by Delphine Duran
Scritch ScratchThe science is very inaccurate in this book, but the art of the book won me over!  Ms. Calyspo is cute, even if the lunch and hair washing with the principal is a tad creepy.  You don’t have to point out the modern-day implications of this to your kids.

Germs Make Me Sick! By Melvin Berger
The artwork is okay, but in a simple way it explains contagion and good hand washing.

Enjoy reading to your children and have fun learning along with them.  I'll be on the look-out for some more interesting titles for later posts. There are many that I didn't cover here, more picture, resource, and chapter books.  Please let me know what you have found to be good for you and/or your children.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Rats and the Fleas Who Loved Them

Rats:  Observations on the History and Habitat
of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants;
Robert Sullivan; 2004
Now, I'm sure that Robert Sullivan is a nice guy, but a part of me wishes that he was around during the 1600's or earlier, in the days of epidemic plague.  Most likely he would have fallen victim to it too, but I can't help but feel that his stealth powers of observation might have saved millions of people.  He would have seen thousands of rats die each day, their bodies cooling, fleas jumping off them in droves.  He would have followed the fleas to humans, watched the people get sick...connecting the pieces together, writing it all down just like Hippocrates.  Only different from Hippocrates, he would show the fate of the rats and why they died.  Had he been around then, life would be very different now.  Likely more crowded, unless epidemics of equal dimension came to kill off at least half of the population in Europe, Asia, and other areas, but we wouldn't have the art inspired, literature devoted to these times of human devastation.    You can argue that that would be a good thing.

The other part of me is glad that Mr. Sullivan was around to write this book now, inspired by John James Audubon's painting of rats.  In time of  plague, Rattus rattus or the black rat, was the one that carried the flea infected with Yersinia pestis.
The famous flea described in the book
Micrographia by R. Hooke 1665
Xenopsylla cheopis is this smitten flea who preferred to live on the rat, but alas, it couldn't go on forever.  The rat became sick and died, no longer a nice place for the flea to live.  Sometimes they would mourn and sulk [really?] and live for months without finding a rat to live on.  They would eventually need a meal, and the humans living in close quarters with the now dead rats were an okay second choice.  Thus the start of the plague epidemics, the Great Dying, and the Black Death as it would be later named.  Sullivan's book details the rats' story, the fact that rats do eat our garbage; that's why they live in more populated areas around humans.  They are also responsible for destruction of roughly one-third of the world's food supply, and they carry not only fleas, but mites, ticks, lice and many microorganisms.

Did you know that the North American continent may have been populated by Greenlanders had it not been for the plague?  Natives from Greenland would come down and visit once in a while, but the Little Ice Age and the plague wiped Greenlanders out completely.  The Europeans and Asians were too weakened and distracted by their troubles to go out and adventure.  The Byzantine Empire fell, perhaps because of the plague.  It likely didn't do wonders for the Roman Empire either.

The ultra-short history of the plague caused by Yersinia pestis is that the first epidemic may have been in 1320 BC, affecting the Philistines.  It later wiped out one-half of the Roman empire ruled by Emperor Justinian.  The first pandemic of Black Death in Europe started in 1338 AD.  During the rather large gap in time between Justinian and 1338 is interesting.  In the area which is now Turkistan, it is thought that marmots carried the plague-infested flea, but no epidemic ensued.  No one really knows why no plague is documented during this time--a peaceful coexistence between the flea and nomads, perhaps.

Woman Catching a Flea;
 Georges de La Tour; 1638

Saint Thecla Liberating the City 
of Este from the Plague
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1758-59.

Later, when the silk trade route expanded to the west from China, plague disease began again, in towns along the route, driving plague from China to Europe, up the Volga river to the Black Sea, and its ports.

At these seaports, rats would embark and disembark, with little notice.  This lead to the spread of Yersinia pestis throughout Europe. Plague spread fear, yet the cause was not known. People tried with aromas to protect themselves from the bad air--miasma.  Planet alignment was blamed.  Doctors wore masks to filter the air and keep the bad smells out as they tended to the sick [what could they do really, but try to calm their patients?].  The long coats that they wore kept the fleas off the doctors, as long as they changed their clothes frequently [not always done].  

Many statues and plaques commemorate the dead due to the plague.  A significant amount of artwork depicting the plague doctor exists. One of the more recognizable depictions is shown to the upper-right of here.  More modern art is in abundance, with masks, costumes, drawings, paintings, and sculpture.  Here is one that drew my attention, by Ekonk on deviantART.

The Plague Doctor by ~Ekonk on deviantART

Curiously reminiscent of plague doctors;
Antonia Prohias; MAD Magazine
It may be coincidence, but I think that the characters in Spy Vs Spy from Mad Magazine bear a resemblance to these plague doctors.  The artist was from Cuba, a place that has a history of plague.

America has also been touched by plague, and plague is endemic [in the wild] in some areas of the southwest.  Illness with plague continues, but is far less of a concern than it used to be.  There is treatment, which makes it inexcusable to hear of people dying from it now.

Another very readable source that describes the plague in detail, from the non-rat perspective is:

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Of Lice and Men

The Lice
A poor man's clothes are ragged, quick to soil,
quick to soil and hard to get free of lice.
Between belt and skirt they nest,
climbing stealthily toward the collar.
So well hidden; how can I possibly find them?
They dine on my blood and nestle in my skin.
My life has give-and-take enough,
why poke my nose into yours?

Yao-Ch'en Mei, Chinese Government official [1002-1060]
Hamil, Sam; Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese
Human body lice [Pediculosis corporis], historically referred to as Vagabond's disease, different from the schoolyard variety that many children get on their heads [Pediculosis capitis], is more common in areas of poor sanitation and hygiene.  Body lice and the diseases transmitted by them are the ones most depicted in art and literature.  They actually live in the seams of clothing, not directly on the body. There is also the less common pubic louse [Pediculosis pubis], or crabs, that usually occurs with other sexually transmitted diseases.

Lice are ectoparasites.  They don't just bite or sting [such as bees, ants, spiders, or caterpillars] but feast on the blood of their host.  The main ectoparasites are lice, fleas, ticks, certain flies, mosquitoes, and mites.  In history, they have been feared, fear fueled by lack of understanding and lack of treatment for the diseases that they can carry.  Some of the microorganisms that can be spread from them are bacteria, spirochetes, viral, rickettsial, helmintic and protozoa.

Certainly a different story from that of George and Lennie [Of Mice and Men], but typhus has struck people when they were down and out already.  The weakened bodies made them more vulnerable to disease as Lennie's mental weakness made him more vulnerable to misfortune. The Irish during 1845 to 1849 entered a hunger unlike any they had ever experienced.  The hunger was so great that starving children swelled with edema from malnutrition.  The hunger made them more susceptible to diseases like tuberculosis and diarrhea, and many infants died shortly after birth.  Poor sanitary conditions added to this hunger and made them more likely to carry human body lice, which at that time were commonly infected with relapsing fever [Borrelia recurrentis, a spirochete, which burrows through the skin after lice are crushed] and epidemic typhus [Rickettsia prowazekii].  Murine typhus [Rickettsia typhi] was perhaps carried by lice, but mainly by fleas.  It produces endemic typhus, but tends to be more mild than the epidemic form.  The epidemic typhus was the more likely culprit during the famine.  Rats and their fleas will be highlighted in the next posting.

Relapsing fever did just what it sounds like.  It would cause high fevers for several days, the person would then begin to feel better, then the fever would return.  Not too many cycles would go by before people died from it.  Relapsing fever killed many people in Ireland during the Great Hunger, but as there were no diagnostic tests, it's hard to separate out from typhus.  In WWI, over 50,000 deaths due to relapsing fever in soldiers occurred in Northern Africa and Europe.

Typhus by Théophile Hamel
1849 Montreal
Louse-born typhus, epidemic typhus, was called many things:  classic typhus, typhus examthematicus, tarbardillo, fleckfieber, and jail fever.  Within one week of infection, the typhus victum would have intense headache, chills, fever, myalgia [muscle ache], and a rash that would spread and darken.  Usually the face, palms, and soles of feet would be spared.  The person might also have cough, deafness and ringing in the ears. Eventually, many would die, especially the severely malnourished.  Between 1918 and 1922 over 30 million people in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were infected, and over 3 million died.  These infections and deaths were mainly in concentration camps.  There have been concentration camp survivors that still fight a recurrent form of typhus, Brill Zinsser disease.  By November of 1846 in County Cork, fever took hold and epidemic typhus began to sweep Ireland.  Both upper and lower classes died, in greater amounts than those who starved to death.  Shortly thereafter, the potato blight wiped out the crop and starvation worsened along with disease.  Those who could get away likely carried disease with them.  Many emigrants to Canada, mainly Montreal and Quebec, were also infected.

It is known that the Nazi's wouldn't knowingly set up camp or create concentration camps where there was typhus.  Some Polish doctors would inoculate patients with a substance to give false positives of typhus so that the Nazi's wouldn't enter their area.  For depiction of concentration camps and typhus, please visit this site to see Leslie Cole's images.  They are haunting.

Soldiers Hunting for Lice
Laszlo Mednyanszky 1915, from Wikipedia
Poor hygiene and sanitation also lead to Trench Fever [Bartonella quintana].  The symptoms are flu-like with aches and pains, fever, but also caused eye redness and nystagmus [rhythmic eye movements making focusing difficult], dizziness, rash, and enlargement of the spleen, and low blood protein.  Other names for trench fever are Rochilamaea quintana, Volhynia fever, Meuse fever, His-Werner disease, shinbone fever, shank fever, quintan or 5-day fever.  Some people infected with this variation of Bartonella were without symptoms; some had a single episode of illness, and some had periodic episodes.  The less fortunate ones had continual symptoms until they died.

World War I: Trench Warfare. (2011). The History Channel website. Retrieved 9:59, January 6, 2011, from

All these organisms still exist and cause problems in areas with poor sanitation and hygiene.  The fear is now less due to available treatment.  However, when treatment is not available or sought after, people can die from these infections.


Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases: Expert Consult Premium Edition - Enhanced Online Features and Print (Two Volume Set)

The Great Hunger Ireland: 1845-1849 By Cecil Woodham-Smith (Penguin (Non-Classics), Paperback, 9780140145151, 528pp.)
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