Category Archives: epidemiology

Canaries in Coalmines, Episode 1

I woke at 5:30 this morning, thinking about some photocopies I’d winnowed out while purging unnecessary stuff from the files in the barn, and wondering if there was more to know about the subject I’d last considered 10 years ago… wondering if the issue that seemed so pregnant a decade ago had evaporated, been debunked, or perhaps continued to develop into fully-fledged Crisis… Here’s a case in point for the nebulous edifice mentioned in yesterday’s post, a fragment that fairly screams to be knit back into the structure of Stuff I Know Something About.

First thing I did was to try to retrieve whatever I might have written a decade ago, using the search vultures in Google… and sure enough, up came Perishing Vultures (Jan 2004).

Next, I did a Google search for vultures India (starting broad, to see what comes up), which answers the original question (? evaporated/debunked/continued ?). Here are some of the most interesting results:

Indian Vulture Crisis from Wikipedia

original Oaks et al. 2004 paper

2012 review paper in Ann NY Acad Sci

a Nature article from TWO DAYS AGO

International Centre for Birds of Prey

2011 summary, including these bits:

It wasn’t until early 2003 when Oaks decided to look at their food source which was almost entirely domestic livestock, including cattle. In Hinduism, the main religion of India, cows are thought to be sacred and it’s against Indian law to kill or cause them pain. As such, farmers would liberally administer a pain killer called diclofenac to ease any suffering their cows might endure. When the cows eventually died, they would be sent to “carcass fields” to decompose because they couldn’t be buried or cremated according to the same religious reasons that sheltered them from suffering or death.

…While the vulture population has been decimated, the feral dog population has exploded. With this new abundant source of food, wild dogs have become the new primary scavenger. …their physiology isn’t as well-adapted to scavenging, and instead of destroying diseases such as rabies, they simply transmit them. When dogs contract rabies, they suffer from brain damage that makes them become extremely aggressive and prone to bite anything that comes nearby. India now has a rabies epidemic with the highest rate of human rabies in the world, resulting in about 35,000 deaths per year.

February 2012 summary of “Nationwide road surveys in India”

…initially conducted in 1991-1993 and repeated in 2000, 2002, 2003 and 2007, revealed that, by 2007, Asian white-backed vulture (Gyps bengalensis) had fallen to 0.1% of its numbers in the early 1990s, with populations of Indian vulture (Gyps indicus) and Slender-billed vulture (Gyps tenuirostris) having fallen to 3.2% of their earlier level. The last nationwide survey in India was undertaken in 2007.

UC Davis student paper by Johanne Boulat, with useful bibliography

Himalayan Griffon Gyps himalayensis factsheet from Birdlife International

Two organizations: Save the Vultures and Vulture Rescue

…and contemporary African and European analogs and March 2014 Guardian article

So there’s an example of what I might do a lot more of, following up on things from past and present as they cross my path. Can’t hurt, might even somehow prove useful.

Borrelia burgdorferi

Trust me on this: you wouldn’t enjoy Lyme disease:

Day 3

I’m past the time of utter misery while the antibiotic (doxycycline) was wreaking its wrath upon the bacteria, and almost sentient again, but still feeling grateful for people’s expression of concern.

Annals of Med’cin

Before you visit another doctor or take another pill, I suggest a reading of Gary Greenberg’s “Manufacturing depression: a journey into the economy of melancholy” in the May 2007 Harper’s (not yet online, but widely available at newsstands and even supermarkets. Better yet, subscribe and get access to the WHOLE archive, back to !!1850!!). Here’s a bit of what you’ll encounter:

…in more than half the clinical trials used to approve the six leading antidepressants, the drugs failed to outperform the placebos, and when it came time to decide on Celexa, an FDA bureaucrat wondered on paper whether the results were too weak to be clinically significant, only to be reminded that all the other antidepressants had been approved on equally weak evidence. (pg 40)


…irresistable ideas about who we are only come along every so often, and here at Mass General they’ve gotten hold of a big one. They have figured out how to use the gigantic apparatus of modern medicine to restore our hope: by unburdening us of self-contradiction and uncertainty, by replacing pessimism with “optimization,” by inventing us as people who seek Life Enjoyment and Satisfaction, who will buy from the pharmacy what we need to forge ahead toward Well-Being unhindered by Depressive Symptomatology, to pursue antidepression if not happiness. Who can resist this idea that our unhappiness is a deficiency that is in us but not of us, that it is visited upon us by dumb luck, that it can be sent packing with a dab of lubricant applied to a cell membrane? (pg 46)