Monday, May 31, 2010

The Reagan Administration Meets the AIDS Pandemic…

…and allies itself with the virus, rather than politically unpalatable science. From Level 4: Virus Hunters of the CDC, by J.B. McCormick, M.D., S.F. Fisher-Hoch, M.D., with Leslie Ann Horvitz, pp. 174-177; McCormick is writing:

Two very important discoveries began to emerge from our investigation. For one thing, we were recording far more cases of AIDS in women than we were used to seeing in the United States or Europe, where the disease was still striking gay men in disproportionate numbers. For another, we were also beginning to see a direct correlation between the number of sexual partners and the rate of infection. This was a finding similar to what physicians had observed among the gay men in San Francisco early in the AIDS epidemic. While we recognized that this was a disease spread by sexual transmission, the shock for us was that, in Zaire, it was almost entirely due to “normal” heterosexual intercourse. But that didn’t mean that there was no homosexual transmission. It was just that our investigation revealed that it was relatively rare among men living in Kinshasa. The same situation appears to be true of most of Africa. Certainly, there was no organized or visible gay community in Zaire, as there is in the West. On the other hand, compared to the West, heterosexual contacts in Africa are frequent, and relatively free of social constraints—at least for the men.

Our findings in Kinshasa were supported by similar investigations throughout Africa, notably in Rwanda. The world now had to face an uncomfortable, frightening reality. We thought about the ramifications of our discovery and discussed them at length. There was every reason to believe that, having found heterosexually transmitted AIDS in Kinshasa, we were likely to find it everywhere else in the world. Until this moment, especially in the United States, AIDS was linked almost exclusively to gays and drug addicts and other marginalized groups such as Haitians. It wasn’t something that was supposed to affect “mainstream” people.

In 1984, our team and a Belgian team in Rwanda, led by Van der Peer, published our conclusions in The Lancet, the venerable British medical journal. These articles would change the way that people looked at the disease. After reviewing the situation in Africa, we then posed a question: “Will this be the face of AIDS in the West within the next decade?”

To some at the time, the very question was itself blasphemous. But we know today, for many countries in the West, the answer is yes. In 1996, AIDS is now the primary cause of death in women between the ages of 25 and 40.

In my report to the director of the CDC, I suggested that AIDS was endemic in Zaire, and that it may have been present since the mid 1970s. I based my conclusions on accounts by physicians who had seen a number of undiagnosed cases of weight loss and diarrhea, invariably resulting in death over at least ten years. Although they’d attributed the cause to TB, it seemed in retrospect that the cause of death was probably AIDS related. In what was the most controversial part of the report, I went on to characterize the disease as one that was spread by heterosexual contact in Zaire, adding that there was no evidence that homosexuality or drug abuse had played a significant role in its transmission. I recommended that the CDC undertake a long-term collaboration with the Ministry of Health of Zaire to establish a system of surveillance for the disease in that country. Finally, I called for the WHO to convene a workshop on the problem to be held either in Kinshasa or Brazzaville, in the neighboring Congo. These recommendations were subsequently accepted.

I returned to Atlanta on November 8 and immediately reported to my chief, Gary Noble, and to the director of the Center for Infectious Diseases, Walter Dowdle. After listening to what I had to say, they both agreed that I should meet with Bill Foege, director of the CDC. This was the year that Dr. Foege had announced his departure as head of the agency, and because his successor, James Mason, happened to be visiting CDC that day, he was invited to sit in on the meeting. In addition, we were joined by Jim Curran, director of the HIV/AIDS Division, and Fred Murphy, director of the Division of Viral Diseases. Serendipity had brought together in one place and time many of the major players in AIDS who were associated with the CDC.

Bill Foege had lived and worked in Africa, so right away he recognized just how grave a situation we were confronting. He decided that we should put in a call to Dr. Edward Brandt, U.S. assistant secretary for health. I was put on the speaker phone with him. I did not know who he was—other than that he was a Ronald Reagan appointee—and I had no idea how he might respond. I began by describing our data and went on to outline our major conclusions. I tried to spell out everything as simply and as clearly as possible.

There followed a long silence on the other end.

Brandt began by saying that I must have got it all wrong.

“There must be another explanation for your findings. Have you considered other vectors, like mosquitoes?”

Mosquitoes were obviously easier for him to talk about than sex.

“I don’t think that the evidence supports that, sir,” I said. “So far, we’ve found very little disease in children. And children get just as many mosquito bites as adults—probably more. That’s why they suffer so much from malaria. And if AIDS were transmitted by mosquitoes, we wouldn’t have seen the sort of random [sic] pattern of distribution of the disease in the population that we did. When you look at malaria, you can see see a random pattern. We all know anyone can get malaria; it just depends on who gets bitten. But what we saw with this disease were definite chains of infection as well as clustering around sexual contacts. There were hardly any cases with children or with old people.”

My explanation, as well-reasoned as I thought it was, failed to sway Brandt. He seemed bent on coming up with another theory; just so long as it would let heterosexual intercourse off the hook. Our discussion went on like this for about twenty minutes. But nothing I could say seemed to make an impression on him. I was stunned by the depth of disbelief—or, rather, denial—on the Washington end of the line. Certainly, everyone sitting in the room with me understood the compelling nature of the evidence and realized that it was imperative that we take action.

Evidently, the conclusion the administration had reached was very different. This was the Reagan era. If AIDS was going to have an explanation, it seemed then it would have to be politically and socially more acceptable than what we had to offer. Voters were not going to like our message. They rested easier easier with the notion of a “gay plague,” as the disease was called when it first became known to the general public. There was a self-satisfied, ugly moralism about that notion. What we proposed to tell them is that AIDS was a plague all right, but that no one was immune.

By steadfastly refusing to acknowledge the dimensions of the AIDS crisis, the Reagan administration made itself an ally of the virus. It would take another year before Washington’s policy would begin to change, with the appointment of C. Everett Koop as surgeon general. Koop, a political conservative with a strong sense of right and wrong, was a great physician and objective scientist. He refused to contaminate public health with ideology.

As George W. Bush might have said at the time, “Brandtie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”

Further, consider: After the meeting described above the Reagan administration knew that HIV/AIDS could kill not just the members of groups it hated or despised, but the people it considered “normal” … and it did nothing, rather than deal with a fact that would not play well with its base – a group that it now knew was no more immune to HIV/AIDS than any other people. So, not even protecting the lives of its political base was more important to the administration than securing its votes.

Bees Move into the Nest Box

Like last year, bees have moved into the screech owl nest box. One more problem to deal with. Or maybe not – for some reason they abandoned the box at some point last year. (During the worst of the drought? Probably, but I can’t remember.) Then, one or more fox squirrels cleaned out the nest box, initially, I presume, as a means to harvest the honey. A rare treat for a squirrel, I’d guess. They saved me a lot of large-scale cleanup work, so that worked-out well, though I still had plenty of detail-oriented cleaning to do, like getting the last remnants of comb off of the attic camera compartment glass, which proved to be quite difficult – and not, to my surprise, 100% successful.

I was surprised when the bees moved in at all. Until last year, the box had been up continuously for a decade, and bees had ignored it the whole time. That was in stark contrast to my first screech owl nest box, which was occupied by bees in its first spring, just after the owls moved out. It stayed occupied by those bees for about six years. We got along fine, and the bees took excellent care of the box (they performed actual maintenance, like sealing cracks that developed in the wood), but it did mean that I had to build a new box for the next year. And the year after that I built the prototype for my first camera-equipped nest box – a design that’s proved so flexible, it’s still meeting my needs more than 11 years later.

(Ultimately, I significantly upgraded the prototype and donated it to the Austin Nature & Science Center, but I haven’t heard anything from them in years. If they ever got nesting owls, they haven’t told me. At the time, they mentioned the possibility of putting up a donor plaque for me, which would have been gratifying, but if that ever happened, they haven’t told be me about that, either.)

The thing about the bees is that my reading indicated that they could be prevented (or was it merely “discouraged”?) from occupying a nest box by rubbing the ceiling with a bar of soap. The idea being that the soap makes it difficult or impossible for them to attach their combs, so they give up and go elsewhere. I thought the current nest box was safe because most of its ceiling was glass, which, years of experience suggested, was even more difficult to attach comb to than soap-coated wood. Apparently, I just got lucky. In point of fact, glass didn’t seem to pose much of a problem for them last year.

After last year, I not only cleaned out every last trace of previous bee presence that I could, but I took a bar of soap and gave the wooden structures near the top of the nest box interior a good rubbing, reasoning that the glass probably was sub-optimal for comb attachment, and that the surrounding wooden structures must have played a role in anchoring the comb. Unfortunately, the combination of glass and soap-rubbed wood doesn’t seem to have worked.

So that’s another problem on my plate. Oh, joy.

I’m hoping the bees will abandon the box even earlier this year than last, and that the local squirrels will lend a hand with the cleanup work, but it’ll take a while for that process to occur, if it’s going to.

On the plus side, I suppose I can take the bees presence as a compliment to my wildflower meadow (AKA most of my back yard), which did better this year than it has in some time. (And, rains permitting, it should do even better next year.)

By the way, in this part of the country there’s no way of knowing whether any of my three bee colonies were composed of conventional European honey bees, or their Africanized cousins (the so-called “killer” bees). But the possibility is nothing to get worked-up about, according to my reading of various of Sue Hubbell’s books (all recommended, but A Country Year is my favorite). If I remember Sue correctly, throughout South and Central America, where Africanized bees have displaced conventional, European honey bees, beekeepers go right on working the way they always have. Nonetheless, news crews from the ’States persist in visiting and, not wanting to leave with a boring story about how “killer” bees aren’t death on the wing, and how more people in the U.S. die of stings from conventional bees every year than the “killer” bees, the crews pay the beekeepers to intentionally aggravate the bees so they can get shots of all that alleged aggression.

Nonetheless, while I have no particular fear of bees, I also lack a beekeeper’s knowledge of how to handle them, so I won’t be tangling with them (no matter what species they are). Hopefully, like last year, they’ll move along of their own volition, and the squirrels will once again do me the favor of cleaning-up the box afterward.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Screech Owl Nesting Complete

Owlet no. 3 (the last of the two owlets that successfully hatched from the four eggs that were laid), left the nest box around 9 PM last night, and successfully climbed its way to safety in the high, outer branches of the nest box tree. The picture above shows owlet no. 3 beginning that climb.

So, that’s pretty much that for the 2010 nesting season. There may be a few more updates if I catch sight of the owlets over the next week. But they won’t be going back to the nest box no matter what (once they've left, they don’t go back - their instincts appear to operate in one direction only in this matter), so I’ll be shutting down the “live” video as soon as I get around to it.

Thanks to everyone who watched, and especially to those who sent postcards.

By the way, over the last month, Google Analytics shows that the site had 11,271 visitors (no, I don’t know who you are), 192,052 pageviews, 17.04 pages/visit, almost 18 minutes average time on the site, and 24.18% new visitors – and those stats are on the low side, because views of the daily highlights pictures are not recorded. Visitors were primarily from the United States (10,595), but Germany supplied 222, the United Kingdom 162, Canda 134, the Netherlands 30, Hungary 27, France 11, Finland 8, Ireland 6, Australia 5, the Czech Republic 5, New Zealand 3, Turkey 3, India 3, Denmark 2, Malaysia 2, the Philipines 2, and Japan 2. (I’ve omitted the 49 other countries that only supplied one visitor in order to keep that list short.) Anyway, welcome to everyone and I hope you enjoyed it.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The 2010 Models – Eastern Screech Owls

I brought the owls’ nest box down early this morning and attached the owlet rail outside the entry/exit hole (see the final photo). This was done in anticipation of the eldest owlet leaving the nest soon, and in the expectation that having a perch outside the hole must make that critical leap from nest to tree easier.

This also gave me an opportunity to open the nest box and take some family portraits. Above, I believe, is the eldest owlet. Below, poorly photographed, is the youngest owlet. I also meant to photograph unhatched egg no. 4, but it wasn’t immediately evident, and searching the bedding materials for it seemed like it would be an unnecessary disturbance to the owlets. (I can dig it up after the owlets are gone.)

And below is what the nest box looks like with the owlet rail attached to the front. (There’s a paper towel temporarily to stuffed into the entry/exit hole to calm the owlets, but, otherwise, it looks much the same once it’s been returned to its rightful place in the tree.)

Needless to say, this threat to the nest and owlets resulted in repeated attacks by the adults, from which my scalp probably carries a good number of scratches, all well-deserved. And all in a good cause.

Remember, you can still watch the activity in the nest more-or-less live. It won’t be long before the owlets are gone for the year, so, if you care about this sort thing, watch while you still can.

Photos of the Adult Owls

Here’re the promised photos of the adults. Don’t ask me which is the male and which is the female – unless I was lucky enough to observe sexually distinctive behavior (like tearing up prey and feeding it to the owlets, which only the female will do), there’s no way for me to know.

Alternately, if both owls suddenly took leave of their senses and let me get hold of them, I might be able to determine their sex by weighing them, because females are generally heavier than males. (That’s known as “reverse sexual size dimorphism,” if you want to impress your friends.) However, there’s some overlap of their normal weight ranges, so even weighing them doesn’t guarantee an answer. Fortunately, somehow, the owls have it all figured-out.

Fooled by the Owlets

The owlets fooled me. Earlier tonight it looked like there was only one owlet left in the nest. That sent me out on a search (and, if necessary, rescue) mission. I looked everywhere I could think of for that owlet (three or four times), wanting to make sure it had found its way to a safe perch, or, if it hadn’t, to find it and put it on a safe perch. I had no luck finding the owlet, but I found both adults and was dealt a good, solid wallop to the head by one of them, and verbally warned away by the other. Having been walloped, I was sure the owlet had to have left the nest – in my experience, the adults never become so defensive until an owlet has left the nest. So much for experience ... when I returned to the house to write this, I looked at the owl cam’ images and found that both owlets were still in the nest. The previous impression that one was gone was merely caused by one owlet standing in a position that completely blocked the camera’s view of the other owlet. I’m not usually fooled by that, but the owlets stayed in the same position for a full five minutes (at least), and I thought that was too long for both to stay sufficiently stationary to maintain the single-owlet illusion. Show’s you what I know. (Heck, I thought I wouldn’t be attacked for wandering under the nest box tree until an owlet had left the nest. That’s been true every other year, but not this time. Well, owl personalities vary, just like people’s, so it seems that this year at least one of my adults is more defensive than I’m accustomed to. Good for them.)

Now there are two things I probably ought to do tonight. One is to post the pictures of the adults that I took while I was searching for the (not) missing owlet. And the other is to bring down the nest box (the parents really aren’t going to like me after that) and attach the owlet rail, which should make it easier for the owlets to jump from the nest box to a nearby tree limb, whenever they do decide to leave the nest.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Imagery to Conjure With

Good friend Jay Lake has been dreaming again. This one has been haunting me for a week. Imagery to conjure with, but also imagery that strikes deep and hurts.

Jay and I have very different minds and personalities, yet somewhere in all that there’re more common chords than I’d ever realized.