Monday, September 06, 2010
Parasites by Rosemary Drisdelle
I read this book for RIP. I'm also reading Dracula, so I figured this might introduce me to some smaller and more realistic bloodsucking freaks.
The subtitle of this book, as you can see, is: Tales of Humanity's Most Unwelcome Guests, and thus, the book was almost entirely dedicated to Human Parasitology. There were a few discussions of some of the more dramatic and interesting nonhuman parasites such as the barnacle that feminizes male crabs and turns them into nurturing "mothers" for the parasite. Carl Zimmer's Parasite Rex is a much more fun read and deals with many of these fascinating examples. But Drisdelle's book was mostly about humanoids and their parasites and how their parasites have affected history. This was some of the most interesting stuff in the book. She discussed the role of hookworm in the outcome of the United States Civil War, the role of malaria in the Vietnam War, and the role of Stanley and Livinstone in spreading river blindness. There was some interesting speculations, such as that Captain Cook may have had Ascaris intestinal worms that gave him a Vitamin B deficiency that led to his making bad decisions that led to his being chopped into little pieces by Polynesians. Some of the case studies were fascinating, such as the college student who was thrown out by his roommates and dosed their food with tapeworm eggs before he left. (He was a student of parasitology, after all). Overall, a pretty intersting book, especially the chapter on how parasites affect the behavior of their hosts.
One of the take home points was that our global society is moving our parasites around and bringing joy to new areas of the world. The slave trade, of course, brought yellow fever to many parts of the world. European's took smallpox with them wherever they went. Chagas disease has come to the U.S. through blood transfusions of immigrants. Globalization has many down sides and parasites are one of them.
But parasites are not all bad. We now know that whipworms greatly relieve suffering from Crohn's disease and that Ascaris worms reduce allergy symptoms. Next time you go to the doctor, they just may give you a friendly parasite to make you feel better. Just hopefully not a screwworm larvae or a botfly.