Last updated May 18, 2017 at 11:32 am
You know those days where you feel like you’re carrying the world on your shoulders? Well, in reality that’s every day. We carry around 200 grams of bacteria on our skin and in our bodies. When you think of how small bacteria are, that’s a whole lot of small critters that go through our lives with us.
This mini world of bacteria is unique to each of us, with some having complicated relationships with our bodies. Some bacteria that live within us are parasitic, but they may not always make us sick. Parasites are organisms who live off draining nutrients from their hosts. Apart from bacteria, parasites can be insects, fungi, molluscs, snails and worms just to name a few.
Alanta Colley has lots of experience with parasitic organisms – some more intimately than others – through her work in Australian Indigenous communities, and travels with the United Nations.
We had a chat with Alanta about her science around the world, bringing science in to comedy and the life cycle of the guinea-worm.
Your career in public health has lead you to be quite familiar with some rare and interesting parasites, do you have a favourite?
My favourite parasite is Toxoplasma gondii. It’s a parasitic infection that starts off in rats; epigenetically (modifying gene expression to) manipulating their behaviour to reduce their aversion to cats. This means it increases the likelihood of the rat being captured by a cat, thus successfully transferring T. gondii to the cat, where it can complete its life cycle! Humans then often contract it from their cat. There is some scientific evidence that humans with the parasite have increased risk-taking behaviours! So that mad friend of yours who keeps insisting on pulling crazy stunts may just be a carrier of toxoplasma!
Wow, that’s cool, I’ll have to keep that in mind for my next good excuse. So if Toxoplasma gondii is your favourite parasite, do you have one you’ve been sick with that was really awful, or a least favourite parasite?
Ooh, there’s some stiff competition for the most awful parasite. I’ll go with the Bot Fly. The Bot fly lays eggs on its host, then the warmth of a mammal stimulates the larvae to hatch and crawl into the skin, leaving a breathing hole. It then develops spines as it grows in the skin tissue. When they finish larval stage they’ll emerge from the hole. If a human tries to squeeze it out or ruptures the larvae the insect’s fluids can cause anaphylactic shock. There are inspiringly awful clips on Youtube of unlucky people having botfly larvae removed from their scalp and other places.
I think I can confidently say that I will take your word for how awful it is and avoid that part of Youtube. Thankfully they live in South and Central America so we’re safe in Australia.
On the topic of travelling, through your work with the United Nations and Engineers without borders you’ve been to Cambodia, Timor, Eastern Uganda and spent time with Australian Indigenous groups. How different have you found attitudes towards science and medicine around the world?
If science is the process of experiment, observation, and repetition, cultures around the world all possess their own scientific knowledge, though that knowledge might be captured in stories, philosophy or biological mapping very different from western models. For that reason, it is very important to have dialogue over different models of thinking. For example, the first line of treatment of plasmodium falciparum (the malarial strain responsible for cerebral malaria) is artemisinin combination therapy; containing the herb artemether, which has been used in China for hundreds of years to treat malaria. It has saved my life twice. That said continuously building an evidence base for the efficacy (or lack thereof) of different treatments is crucial.
That’s a very valid point, western science can have an elitist exclusivity to how science should be presented. If you don’t publish in high-ranking journals like Nature or Science the implication is that your research isn’t as valid.
Attitudes vary around the world to medicine. For many communities in rural areas, a friend or family member got sick, then went to the hospital, then died. The conclusion some reach from this is that the hospital killed them, as opposed to the patient presenting so late in their illness they could not be treated. It then becomes tricky to encourage people to seek treatment. Problems in medicine supply chains mean the medications are often not available when people arrive at a clinic, further discouraging people. Sometimes government-supplied drugs are being siphoned off to private clinics.
I can see how this would discourage people to seek medical help.
Traditional belief systems are very strong around the world, and traditional birth attendants and healers are still the first line of help many people go to. Quite a number of countries have responded to this by trying to ban traditional practitioners; though from what I can see the best approach has been to include traditional birth attendants and healers in health training, empowering them to know when to refer their clients to health services.
For example, by training traditional birth attendants about HIV, there’s been a reduction in cases of mother-to-child transmission of HIV during birth. Traditional birth attendants often have a depth of reach into the community other health services can’t achieve, so by training them to be able to guide new mothers in what might be normal and abnormal post-partum bleeding, lives can be saved.
So the focus for outside organisations should be on merging traditional and modern techniques and medicine rather than preaching?
For many in rural communities, navigating what is true and what is not true is very difficult and complicated. Westerners often represent colonizers. Then the next wave of westerners were missionaries. Then the next wave health educators. The missionaries demanded people believe in a God. Then health educators demanded people believe in microbes. Neither of which is visible to the naked eye. Health educators preach the use of condoms; church leaders tell people it’s a sin. Traditional beliefs preach the importance of having big families. Most rural communities have a tough job navigating all of these mixed messages. And there’s plenty of reasons not to trust outsiders and their agendas.
It’s still such a complicated issue which will take many more years to change.
Science has a reputation of being a serious and boring topic. You’ve written and are performing a comedy show at the Adelaide Fringe. What drew you to comedy and science comedy?
I’ve loved comedy my whole life, particularly any comedy that teaches me something or gives me a new perspective on life. I also admit there’s a certain pleasure in watching an audience recoil in horror as you discuss some of the most awful aspects of the lifecycle of a guinea-worm. People have a morbid fascination with the disgusting. And laughter? Well sometimes laughing is the only thing we do when do when things go pear shaped. Laughter is assuredly a human survival mechanism. I hope my many misadventures can provide people a little bit of a giggle. That would indeed make all that time on the toilet worthwhile.
Alanta Colley is performing her science-comedy show Parasites Lost! at the Adelaide Fringe on the 17th and 18th of February at the Science Exchange. Tickets via FRINGETIX here.