sat in a helicopter as it banked around and down toward a clearing in the center of Beranimbo, a village of 80 or so palm-thatched huts tucked away in the emerald mountains of Madagascar’s Northern Highlands. My pilot, a blocky German expat named Gerd, had already made one attempt to touch down the shaky single-engine copter, but he’d aborted the landing after the rotor blades kicked up enough dust to cause a brownout.
A few hours earlier, when we’d set out for Beranimbo—a three-hour journey from the Malagasy capital of Antananarivo—Gerd had seemed excited. He doesn’t normally get jobs like this, typically making his money flying film crews around the countryside to shoot B-roll for ecotourism documentaries, usually about lemurs. “You want me to do a pass?” he asked, and before I could find out what he meant, we were swooping low through the hills. My stomach lurched upward; from this altitude we could see the spiny forest vegetation, tall ravenala trees, and great gaping wounds in the countryside, scars of systematic deforestation.
We were there because, in the fall of 2013, Beranimbo had been an epicenter of a black plague outbreak that resulted in nearly 600 cases and more than 90 deaths across the country. Madagascar reports the most instances of the disease in the world. Depending on which century you’re talking about, it’s perhaps best known as the plague—a scourge generally associated with the Middle Ages, when rats, fleas, and poor hygiene resulted in the deaths of between 75 and 200 million people. The disease remains an enduring threat in third-world nations; public-health watchdogs report up to 2,000 cases a year.
In the 1930s, the rise of antibiotics dampened and then nearly extinguished the clinical threat of the disease, at least in the developed world, and it lost its status as a global killer. But for years, epidemiologists have warned that Madagascar is particularly vulnerable to widespread rural and urban contagion. I wanted to find out just how dangerous this medieval disease is in the 21st century, and why it persists in this corner of the world. That search led me to Beranimbo.
When we arrived, Gerd’s nervousness was apparent. “This may be too dangerous,” he muttered into his headset intercom as he tried to land the helicopter. Gerd’s concern wasn’t for his own safety, but rather the security of 200 people gathered around the makeshift landing pad below. Any one of them could have easily lost an eyeball to a pebble or twig whipped upward into the air. Helicopters are rare in Beranimbo and always attract attention, as they usually carry aid workers from the Red Cross. When we finally found a suitable spot to land, villagers ran from the dusty complex of huts to greet us.
On the ground, I was introduced to the village elder, a thin old man in a light jacket and safari hat. To celebrate our arrival, he had organized the slaughter of a zebu, a type of domestic cattle with a large, camel-like hump, for a celebratory lunch. “The sacrifice of the zebu marks our friendship,” he told me. “I can’t express enough our happiness. Enjoy it with all our gratitude.” The animal’s neck was cut, and I was taken to meet Rasoa Marozafy, a 59-year-old father of seven who’s spent his life in the village. Rasoa is a plague survivor, and part of the reason I’d come to this place.
The Sad Demise of Nancy Lee, One of Britain’s Young Ketamine Casualties
Ketamine is that crazy wobbly-leg drug. The wacky-student drug, the post-club chill-out aid, the new-gen LSD that gives users the power to become—according to 1970s K-hole explorer and dolphin whisperer John C. Lilly—“peeping toms at the keyhole of eternity.” But its reputation as a popular recreational drug, since filtering into the mainstream via the gay-clubbing and free-party scenes in the 2000s, does not tell the whole story of what’s going on in modern British K-land.
Apart from a brief paragraph in the Brighton Argus’s obituary column, Nancy Lee’s drug death went unreported. There was no shock factor: She hadn’t collapsed in public from a toxic reaction to a pill or a line of powder in a club. Instead, at the age of 23, Nancy had died slowly over seven years, her body trashed by a steady diet of ketamine.
Nancy started using ketamine at age 16 when she made new friends. Most teenagers getting high in the local Brighton park were necking cider and smoking skunk, but Nancy and her group of indie-kid outsiders used the open spaces to take ketamine. It was cheap, at 12 grams for about $150, and, important for Nancy, it transported her away from real life.
“She was sensitive and very caring, but Nancy was a misfit,” her father Jim, a college lecturer, told me. “She was bullied at school because of a bad squint and for being a tomboy. She had a victim mentality, a feeling that the world was against her.” It’s just that Nancy ended up finding solace in ketamine. “If someone were to design the perfect drug for a teenager who is depressed and doesn’t have much money, this would be it,” Jim said.
An Explanation From the Scientist Behind That Cat Poop Cancer Treatment
In a scientific discovery at Dartmouth recently hailed as “highly shareable” by the internet, cat poop is being mentioned in connection with a newly discovered potential cancer treatment.
Toxoplasma gondii, a single-celled parasite found in the guts of cats, has been used in a lab to treat cancer. It might, after enough testing turn out to be a viable cancer therapy. However, toxoplasma is a strange, shape-shifting organism, and the kind cats poop out won’t shrink your tumors one bit. Still, Dartmouth recently publicized the very promising discovery: A modified version of toxoplasma, when injected into mice with certain kinds of cancer, switched on an immune response that the cancer had deactivated, which then allowed the body to fight the disease itself.
David J. Bzik, Ph.D. of Dartmouth’s Geisel Medical School has been experimenting with toxoplasma for at least a decade. He says the discovery that an altered form of the parasite might cure cancer is a big deal, but that toxoplama is weird and wonderful microbe that still has surprises in store for humanity, none of which involved ingesting cat poop by any stretch of the imagination.
He also schooled me on some interesting trivia I thought I knew about toxoplasma. What follows is an edited version of my conversation with him.
I’m reading a lot of headlines about cat poop curing cancer. Oh of course. They’re sensationalist.
What should they be reporting? We developed this strain of toxoplasma that doesn’t replicate.
Could you remind us what toxoplasma is? It’s a protozoan. Its closest relative is malaria, it’s in the same phylum.
And what happens when it can’t reproduce? It doesn’t cause disease in mice. It’s a great vaccine for toxoplasmosis [which], in AIDS patients is a really big disease. Also in cancer patients, when their immune systems are suppressed, they’re vulnerable to natural infections by toxoplasma. So having a vaccine is a good idea. This has not been tested as a vaccine yet in humans or cats, and we also haven’t tested the anti-cancer effects in humans either. This has all been mouse work.
Editors note: You probably shouldn’t try this at home.
Vulvovaginal candidiasis, commonly known as a “yeast infection,” is experienced by at least 75 percent of women in their adult lives. Most people treat their yeast infections with over-the-counter creams like Vagisil that use an applicator to insert into your vagina overnight. As many women know, this usually leads to the cream leaking out into a massive, irritating mess.
Alternatively, there’s the oral medication Diflucan, which is supposed to cure a yeast infection in 24 hours, but requires a prescription. These treatments are effective for a lot of women. However, none of these medications work for all women, and for a large minority of women, none of them work at all. Women with chronic yeast infections are forced to take the same medications over and over as they continue to suffer from this uncomfortable condition, while most doctors tell them there’s no other choice.
I have had chronic yeast infections since the age of 12, when I spent almost a year feeling too ashamed and scared to even tell my mom. I tried everything. The over-the-counter and prescription medications available would only help temporarily, if at all. I’ve found ways to deal with it over the years, but sometimes a bad one still comes along and I’m flung right back where I started, with no idea how to proceed.
Last year, during a particularly disabling infection, I went to see a new gynocologist, an old Indian woman in the East Village. She had a curt and strange bedside manner and stuck things in me without warning, barely talking to me. Feeling somewhat violated, I left with a few prescriptions, vowing to never go back. Then I went to an alternative pharmacy the next day to pick up the boric acid suppositories she’d prescribed me.
I used them for a few days and WHAM: no more yeast infection. I was floored. Nothing I’d ever used had worked as well as that.
VICE News host Thomas Morton swings from the trees with an international team of scientists in Panama that’s found a promising treatment for malaria, Chagas disease and breast cancer in the most unlikely place: The mossy fur of tree sloths. It’s yet another reason to not cut down rainforests. About half of all drugs brought to market from 1997-2006 came from plants, fungi and bacteria discovered by “bio-prospectors” in nature. And we see that sloths are just one of many new and unusual frontiers for this research.
A Womb of Her Own: DIY Abortion and Birth Control After Hobby Lobby
On Tuesday, I was wandering around the internet and fell into a random binder full of women, which it turns out is a great place to meet badass genius revolutionaries. Jane Doe is adoula and an underground abortion provider. She writes romance novels, dreams of expatriation, and makes the best sea-salt caramels you’ve ever had. She’s spoken at statehouses and chased down riot cops. In the wake of the US Supreme Court’s decision that corporations like Hobby Lobby are people with important religious beliefs about contraception (and that men need Viagra but women don’t need birth control), she released a DIY guide to the basics of abortion, birth control, emergency contraception, and more. We got together in a hidden pocket of the binder so I could ask her for the details.
VICE: Why did you write this guide? Jane Doe: That’s a complicated question. About ten years ago, I wrote a guide to surgical abortions after South Dakota banned all abortions in that state. Since that time, I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve been receiving—at least once a month or so—emails from desperate women who find my surgical abortion how-to and want to abort their pregnancies. For a long time, I didn’t know what to tell them, and then I found out more about medical abortion—how safe it is (especially compared to birth), how women are undergoing medical abortions at home, in privacy, and how there’s a law that lets anyone in the United States import up to 90 days of any non-scheduled prescription drug.
From there, I started actually giving away the pills to women who emailed me—a proposition that became both expensive and incredibly (legally) risky.
Then I started sending them URLs to websites that sold the pills—which is when I thought, Wait, what am I doing? I could be letting people know all of this information, everything I know about how to find these medications, how to use them, what to do if something goes wrong.
I think this information belongs to women. It’s ours. And now it’s out there. Once it’s on the Internet, it’s hard to scrub.
Were you inspired by the Supreme Court decision or was the timing purely coincidental? I’d been working on A Womb of One’s Own for about six months in total, and like many writers tend to do, I found myself procrastinating toward the end of the project. When the Hobby Lobby decision came down, and I realized the Supreme Court wasn’t actually saying that all religious expression was protected—just things pertaining to women’s health—I dropped everything else on my plate and finished the pamphlet that day.
Mask Your Beastly Old Breasts with Surgically Implanted Underwires
Tiring of the hunt for the perfect underwire with which to mask your saggy, beastly old breasts? Fret no more. You can now have a bra surgically inserted beneath the skin, and screwed right into the rib cage with titanium screws. No more offensive, droopy boobs when your bra comes off!
The underwires are being called “silicone slings,” and they’re certified for sale in Europe. The first clinical trials were done in Belgium in 2009, and about 50 procedures have been carried out in Europe since then.
Orbix Medical, the company behind the new form of implant, says it offers an alternative to breast reductions. They can also be a good option for women who have had breast cancer. Any technology that helps women going through that is a welcome development, as far as I’m concerned. The conflict, though, comes into play when one considers the fact that they are also being lauded as a “solution” to the “issue” of sagging breasts.
It was one of those rare moments when you realize the predicament you’re in can’t easily be fixed. I was having sex and then there was a pop. The next minute, I sat stupidly at the end of the bed, staring down at my crotch—eyes wide, jaw hanging open.
“Is it just dye from the condom?”
My then quasi-girlfriend was a little too casual for my liking. I continued to stare at my penis, too stunned to answer.
“No it’s definitely not the condom.”
After running a quick play-by-play in my head, my worst fears had been actualized. I had pulled out a minute before, hastily tearing off the black condom and smacking the light switch to examine the damage only to find out, to my horror, what looked like a growing blood blister on the side of my most dear possession.
Penile implants have become a popular treatment option for erectile dysfunction—a health complication that more than 30 million men suffer from in the United States alone. The surgery consists of placing an inflatable prosthesis within a man’s member that is attached to a soft ball that sits in the scrotum. When the ball is pumped, the penis remains hard for as long as the man wants.
Most individuals that undergo the operation are satisfied with their implant, but the unlucky two to three percent experience infections that can lead to death, mangled parts, and more.
VICE visited Miami, Florida, to speak to one of the leading penis doctors in the country and find out what it’s worth to get your penis operated on.