Meet Chikungunya, a Highly Infectious Disease Slated to Hit the American South
In the southern United States, it’s that time of year again: Birds are chirping, the sun is shining, and thousands of baby mosquitoes are hatching in your weird uncle’s neglected swimming pool.
But this year there’s a new problem child: Aedes aegypti, otherwise known as the yellow fever mosquito. Typically brown with white markings, this mosquito is a highly aggressive biter, generally found in hot, humid areas like Mexico and Central America, and sometimes the American south. But this year, mosquito control managers were concerned to find a bunch of Aedes aegyptias as far west as southern California, and they’re multiplying quickly. The female of the species lays up to 200 eggs several times a season, just above the water line in containers of standing water.
Aedes aegypti is the perfect vector for a handful of frightening tropical diseases, including yellow fever, West Nile virus, and dengue fever. But they’re also a great transmitter of a little known virus that’s been popping up in the Caribbean this year: Chikungunya.
Chikungunya is an acute virus transmitted from the bite of an infected mosquito. It’s not usually fatal, but it causes acute fever, joint pain, and rash. What’s scary is that it has a strikingly high rate of epidemic—up to 50% of potential human hosts will contract the disease when bitten. And of those, around 10% will have persistent arthritis in the smaller joints for up to three years. There’s currently no vaccine to prevent or medicine to treat the disease—the best thing we’ve got is bug spray.
In late 2013, the virus was found for the first time in the Americas, on islands in the Caribbean. More than 5,900 suspected cases of chikungunya have been reported in the Caribbean and South America since December 6. The Public Health Ministry of the Dominican Republic recently reported 3,690 suspected cases in the San Cristobal province alone. Although this may not sound as bad as a disease like Ebola (which kills you through internal hemorrhaging in your gastrointestinal tract), a full-blown outbreak of chikungunya, replete with hundreds of southerners experiencing long-term arthritic symptoms and fever, would take a serious economic toll on the isolated rural areas of the deep south.
So, on to the question: How worried should we be about this particular disease? I called up Dr. Tim Brooks at the Rare and Imported Pathogens Department of Public Health England (PHE). He’s been helping to run the main UK referral center for the disease out of the PHE office, so I figured he’d be able to tell me whether or not you should cancel your upcoming vacation to New Mexico.
Health workers identifying chikungunya in a patient after the disease traveled to the south of France via a tourist. Photo courtesy Valentin Pezet, Jules Foulongne, and Nicolas Gueniot
VICE: So what exactly is Chikungunya? What is it named for?
Dr. Tim Brooks: Chikungunya is a disease that’s pretty much had its day, but it comes around every so often. Its name translates to “that which bends up,” because the biggest problem with the disease is the arthritic debilitation that follows the infection. It’s also got a fascinating history: Chikungunya was first pinned down in Tanzania in 1952, but historical accounts appear across Asia and Africa as early as 1779. Historically, outbreaks began in the Indian Ocean Basin, and it’s been able to travel very successfully since then.
What are the symptoms exactly?
Normally chikungunya presents with joint pains, a rash, and acute fever, followed by all the other symptoms you associate with high fever: headache, diarrhea, back pain. The main problem is the arthritic pain, which does not go away for maybe 10% of patients. It can persist for up to three years, and is very debilitating. It tends to affect the smaller joints, causing local swelling and pain. Once you’ve got it, you’ve got a lifelong immunity to it, but it will generally infect a large portion of the population, move on, and then disappear until the next generation comes up.
"Place is fucked. No one is allowed there for a reason. Don’t ever go."
We went to Snake Island
I Got My Personal Genome Mapped and It Was Bullshit
Last Friday, the FDA forced personal genomics company 23andMe to stop marketing its tests to the public in their current form. Before the order came in, customers would send a spit sample to the firm, who would sequence the DNA and look for genes indicating a risk of up to 254 diseases and conditions, providing a breakdown of any issues.
The FDA cited a lack of supporting evidence for some of the claims made and expressed particularly serious concern over their assessment of the BRCA gene, which is linked to breast cancer, suggesting 23andMe’s tests might result in false positives that could lead to women undergoing traumatic and unnecessary surgery. The FDA’s actions have led to an explosion of opinion across the science blogosphere, but in all of that commentary a big question remains unanswered: What exactly is the point of personal genomics?
My first experience with the industry came about three years ago, when I was offered the chance to have a test done with Navigenics, a firm since taken over by a biotech firm called Life Technologies. Being a curious sort of guy, I jumped at the chance. A sample tube arrived via Fedex a few days later, which I duly spat into and sent back for analysis.
The results came back in the form of a sort of “wall of death”—a breakdown of all the things that might harm or kill me over the coming decades, detailing how likely I am to have each condition. Drilling into the figures, I can see that I have a higher risk of prostate cancer than 95 percent of the population and a 1 in 5 chance of developing Alzheimer’s—twice the average risk. So I’ll probably get cancer, but on the plus side I’ll be too forgetful to care about it.
Geriatric Nuclear Reactors Could Kill Us All
In America, you need a license to drive an automobile, to operate heavy machinery, to hunt and fish, but apparently not to run a nuclear reactor. Entergy Corp. is slated to become the first company in history to operate a reactor without a license this fall. The Louisiana-based energy corporation’s rogue reactor is located at its Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, NY—just 24 miles from Manhattan. Entergy Corp’s license to run its Indian Point 2 reactor expires on September 28. The regulations of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which is charged with overseeing the civilian use of nuclear power, says it is prepared to grant the license but its hands are tied by legal challenges mounted by New York State and a federal court ruling last year. The ruling dismissed the agency’s radioactive waste management plans as inadequate.
Most of America’s nuclear plants were built in the 60s and 70s. They were given shelf lives of 40 years. It was assumed by the industry at the time of their construction that when the millennium rolled around there would be new plants up, running, and ready to replace the old fleet. But between then and now interest in nuclear power has waned due to cost and the public’s reaction to Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and other nuclear calamities. Instead, the energy industry has sought to renew the licenses on the reactors they already operate, while keeping the cost of infrastructure improvements to a bare minimum. They’ve encountered little resistance from the NRC, which has approved 73 separate license renewals and only denied one single application in its history.
Barnaby Jack Could Hack Your Pacemaker and Make Your Heart Explode
VICE: Hi Barnaby. So, why did you decide to reverse engineer the pacemaker?
Barnaby Jack: I was intrigued by the fact that these critical life devices communicate wirelessly. I decided to look at pacemakers and ICDs (implantable cardioverter defibrillators) to see if they communicated securely and if it would be possible for an attacker to remotely control these devices.
And you found it was possible?
Yeah, the software I developed allows the shutting off of the pacemaker or ICD, reading and writing to the memory of the device, and in the case of ICDs it allows the delivering of a high voltage shock of up to 830 volts. I wanted to look at these devices with the aim of demonstrating and raising awareness of the issues I found, then hopefully spark the manufacturers into implementing a more secure design.
Is it difficult to hack into these devices?
It does take a specialized skill, but with more and more security researchers concentrating on embedded devices, the skill set required is becoming more common. It probably took me around six months, from reverse engineering and finding the flaws through to developing software to exploit the vulnerabilities.
If, say, a government official used a pacemaker, would they be vulnerable to assassination from hackers, like in that episode of Homeland? Or do they use better defended devices?
I wouldn’t feel comfortable speculating about such a scenario, but as far as I’m aware there are no differences in the implantable devices issued to officials as there are to the general public.
Read the whole interview
MEXICO CITY: WAS THE PEMEX BLAST A BOMB OR AN ACCIDENT?
The executive skyscraper at the headquarters of Pemex—Mexico’s state-owned oil monopoly, where an explosion this January killed 37 people—is 51 stories tall, plus an elevated helipad at the top. The entire glass exterior has turned a flat metallic yellow from Mexico City’s brutal smog. I’ve lived in Mexico for more than five years, and I always think that at sunset, the helipad looks like it could be a sacrificial platform.
Which is now a terrible thought. The victims of the explosion at the Pemex headquarters on January 31 were mostly regular, everyday office workers. They were secretaries, maintenance guys, accountants. One of the dead was a nine-year-old girl named Dafne Sherlyn Martinez who reportedly went to visit her father that day at work. They both died.
According to official sources, a gas leak caused the explosion. But this official narrative has been called into question and some suspect it was a political attack—another deadly salvo in the hall of smoke and mirrors that is Mexican politics.
Why would anyone try to blow up Pemex? The company is the eighth largest producer of oil in the world, according to the US Energy Information Administration. It’s also a state-run monopoly, making something like $580 billion dollars a year in oil exports, or about a third of the entire country’s GDP. Mexico expropriated its oil industry from all foreigners in 1938, lionizing forever the president responsible for this, Lazaro Cardenas. The constitution still strictly forbids foreigners from owning any of the oil here, and the popular leftist leader, Andres Manual Lopez Obredor, who narrowly lost the last presidential election in Mexico, promises to “defend” Pemex from “privatization” with everything he’s got, which basically adds up to street protests if his record on the matter offers any guidance. Critics like to say that Mexico is now more adverse to foreign investment than the state-owned oil company of Cuba, a Communist-governed country that gets most of its oil from Venezuela and does permit some foreign investment in its oil holdings.
The ATL Twins Would Like to Introduce You to the Li’l Twins
The world has always been a terrifying place, but few have the bravery to stick there head into the vilest and most dead-end aspects of the human condition and document it. As far as we can tell, this is the thesis ofVrille, a twisted-ass video series directed by Matt Swinsky. We found out about Vrille by way of our favorite stripper-banging, double-penetrating duo, the ATL Twins. They helped Matt put the inaugural “episode” together, which features their childhood friends Adam and Andrew Gates—who also happen to be twins and go by the collective “Suave” and “Cutesy,” aka the Li’l Twins.
The ATL Twins and Matt first met the Li’l Twins at a young age via the skateboarding scene of Atlanta. But over the years the Gates boys went off in a peculiar and depressing direction, devolving into boozing hermits who spend their days watching obscure films on a near-broken TV, smoking cigs, and, on the rare occasion when they’re feeling social, hanging out with the dregs of society. You can tell after the first few moments of this clip, which is shot on gritty VHS tape within the Li’l Twins’ dilapidated home, that the two boys have seen some really fucked up shit in their day.
We won’t completely spoil the story contained within this video for you, but we will say that it involves an alleged murderous KKK member who has skinned a few folks (whether they were alive or dead at the time of the skinning has been lost to the sands of time). We also want to make it clear that the gnarly-ass tale told by the Gates Twins is believed to be gospel by both the ATL Twins and the director Matt. The ATL Twins and Matt also want everyone to know that this document is not meant to be exploitative in any way, and the Li’l Twins gave them full approval to shoot it—in other words, it’s “just real shit.”
VICE: How’d you guys meet the Li’l Twins?
The ATL Twins: When we first moved to ATL, we moved to this neighborhood and we met them they were skaters and they were twins. The whole crew was little kids, we were young too, but they were younger—like 16 or some shit—but we got with them and started skating and became really good friends with them. Eventually we became roommates with them and worked with them and shit. Actually, they used to be really amazing skateboarders.
In the interview Chris Nieratko did with you a couple of years ago that sort of introduced you to the world, you guys said something like “fuck other twins.” So I’m surprised you were so close with these two.
Yeah well, we never really ever met any other twins to be honest with you. Other than the Li’l Twins, we haven’t kicked it with any twins. We can relate to them in a lot of always; they were different, they would fight, they were close, but they would also get into fights. One of them knocked the other one’s tooth out. They werebad. They were also really close. We really clicked with them—skateboarding, movies, and shit. We always saw eye-to-eye on everything, they were really cool.
The guy who’s been injecting himself with snake venom for 20 years (and stars in our recent doc Venom Superman) is doing a reddit AMA. Go ask him a question.