Maddie worked as a travel guide in Argentina and a teacher at several educational nonprofits in San Francisco before joining Mother Jones. She’s also written for Outside, the Bay Citizen, and the Rumpus. She manages Mother Jones' Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program.
Update (9/7/12): Another person was confirmed to have died from hantavirus after spending time in Yosemite, bringing the death toll to three and infection count to eight. And in a pattern shift for the outbreak, a man who had recently stayed in the High Sierra Camps in Yosemite tested positive for the virus, so officials widened the scope of the potential outbreak to include areas outside of the Curry Village tent cabins and now believe that 22,000 park visitors might have been exposed over the summer.
Whenever I stay in backcountry huts in Northern California's Sierra mountains, I fight back paranoia spurred by posted signs describing the ominous hantavirus, a rare but deadly sickness spread by rodents who nest in cabins and congregate around likely sources of food and shelter. This year, my paranoia is even more founded: Two people have died and four more are recovering from the virus in what's being described as an unprecedented outbreak this summer in Yosemite. Park officials have traced the cases back to a cushy tent compound called Curry Village where those afflicted stayed at some point over the summer, and have alerted 3,000 visitors via email of potential exposure to the virus.
US wilderness outfits and public health officials have been warning about hantavirus for years, ever since an outbreak of the "Sin Nombre" virus, a type of hantavirus, was newly identified in the Four Corners region of the country in 1993. Since then, 602 cases of hantavirus pulminary disease, the fatal sickness asssociated with the virus, have been reported in 34 states. So why all the fuss about the six confirmed cases in Yosemite?
There are several strains of hantavirus around the world, and a few of them cause hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS), a flu-like respiratory illness that results in death almost 40 percent of the time. The Sin Nombre virus that made headlines in the nineties is carried by deer mice (Peromyscus maniculatus), which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls a "deceptively cute animal, with big eyes and ears." They live pretty much all over the US, mostly in woodlands or deserts but sometimes in urban areas. "There have been deer mice found in even Washington, DC and New York City," Yosemite National Park spokesperson Kari Cobb tells me. Contact with a deer mouse's fresh urine, feces, or saliva causes the virus to spread to humans, commonly through the inhalation of dust particles that have mixed with animal feces. This tends to happen in rural buildings like barns, cabins, and sheds–where deer mice nest and might poop.
There's no cure and no virus-specific treatment for the illness, so public health officials just warn people to avoid rodents and thoroughly clean areas where these animals nest. And even though 15-20 percent of deer mice are infected with hantavirus, Cobb explains, it's a rare disease for humans to contract, mostly because the virus dies shortly after contact with sunlight, and it can't spread from one person to another. HPS is more prevalent in the Southwest, but over half of all cases have occurred elsewhere, mostly in rural areas.
The fact that three to four people came down with HPS after staying in one specific location makes the Yosemite outbreak rather unusual. "Usually it's random and happens in different places and doesn't affect multiple people in the same place," Cobb says. The sudden uptick has park visitors pretty freaked. Once Yosemite established a hantavirus hotline last Tuesday, 700 people called to inquire about possible exposure and symptoms within 24 hours, reports ABC News. Meanwhile, the park has launched an investigation into the deer mouse population and percentage of mice carrying the virus in order to try and figure out why so many people may have contracted the illness.
"Everything that affects the ecology of the deer mouse could affect hantavirus," says a UC-Davis epidemiologist.
I wondered whether changes in climate could have expanded the deer mouse population and therefore incidence of hantavirus. "Usually it's the wetter years that affect the mice and make populations increase," says Cobb. This year was actually pretty dry in Yosemite, with only 50 percent of normal snowpack. But, Cobb adds, "last year we had a 200 percent increase in snowpack." Potentially, a wetter 2011 may have caused deer mice colonies to grow. This scenario would mirror events described in a recent study out of the University of Utah, which mentions that increased precipitation from El Niñotwo to three years prior was to blame for more dense deer mouse populations in the Southwest around the time of the 1993 Sin Nombre outbreak.
Janet Foley, an epidemiologist at University of California-Davis who examines how changes in biodiversity and climate impact infectious diseases, says that the deer mouse is a very common mammal no matter the weather. But she questions what might be making the mouse become more of a pest: "Is it need for more access to a food source?" The drought this year has caused bears to become a huge hassle as they seek food; maybe the mice are also more likely to search for vittles in human shelters, Foley posits. "Everything that affects the ecology of the deer mouse could affect hantavirus," she says.
There's some indication that a changing climate could affect incidence of the virus. A 2009 study by a Slovakian virologist found that higher temperatures in Western and Central Europe have been associated with more frequent hantavirus outbreaks as vole populations increase (though voles carry Puumala hantavirus, not Sin Nombre). The Utah study mentioned above reasons that El Niño and climate change "enhance hantavirus prevalence when host population dynamics are driven by food availability." But the paper also attributes increases in hantavirus to human disturbances to the land in areas like farms (or touristy tent cabins) where human traffic increases a deer mouse's access to food. Climate change affects hantavirus patterns, the Utah researchers claim, though the changes vary depending on location, rodent species, and landscape alterations, and it's still a little early to predict what might happen with hantavirus over the next few decades as tools to diagnose the illness have only been around for 15 years or so. Researcher Denise Dearing, who co-wrote the Utah study, tells me that after eleven years of collecting data, unfortunately funding for her hantavirus study was cut last year; as she sees it, the virus will be unpredictable "unless we have a large surveillance set up" to continue studying the disease.
The hantavirus warning posters I'll confront next time I'm in the Sierra backcountry huts will likely continue to give me the heebie jeebies. And speaking of warning signs, Yosemite never posted any in its tent cabins; the park is now under fire for allegedly neglecting to heed warnings from California public health scientists to educate visitors about the disease, a California Watch investigation discovered. Indeed, Cobb told me there were no signs hanging in Curry Village before the outbreak. "It is just so rare, there were no known cases in Yosemite Valley before this," she said, though there were two known cases linked to Tuolumne Meadows nearby. Now the park has closed an area of Curry Village indefinitely, and plans to be pretty agro about passing out pamphlets and training employees on safe ways to clean cabins and avoid contamination; as well it should, if you consider Slovakian researcher Boris Klempa's 2009 warning that "hantaviruses will undoubtedly remain a significant public health threat for several decades to come."
San Francisco comedian W. Kamau Bell remembers the night Chris Rock strutted in to his dressing room, unexpectedly, in the fall of 2010, to congratulate him on his act. For a comic still struggling to headline shows in San Francisco's small stand-up scene, it felt like a dream, though Bell's practical side kept him from reading anything into it. "I can't go to these people and be like, 'Make me famous,'" he says. So he buckled down and kept touring his solo act, The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour. Based on what Bell calls "comedy investigative journalism," the show hinged on the notion that racism is a persistent negative force that he could harness to make people laugh.
A couple of months later, Rock called Bell, offering to help him land his own TV show. They produced a pilot of Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, and FX bought a six-episode test run, which premieres on Thursday, August 9.
The basics: On July 1, our neighbors to the south held a presidential election. In a stinging rebuke to the conservative National Action Party (PAN) and President Felipe Calderón—whose six-year term has been marked by an increasingly violent drug war and a lagging economy—Mexicans elected Enrique Peña Nieto, a former governor from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which controlled Mexico from 1929 to 2000. Like Calderón in 2006, Peña Nieto received less than 40 percent of the vote but still beat Andrés Manuel López Obrador, an old-school leftist from the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and former mayor of Mexico City. (Josefina Vázquez Mota, the PAN candidate, finished third.) While the result was long seen as a foregone conclusion (Peña Nieto led in the polls throughout the election), López Obrador closed the gap in the final weeks of the campaign thanks in part to a growing student movement fed up with the Televisa-TV Azteca television duopoly, which runs 95 percent of the country's stations and which a June 7 Guardian report claimed favored PRI candidates over their PRD counterparts.
What's happened since the election: In Peña Nieto's victory speech, he promised to try to meet the demands of those that voted against him and applauded the election for being an authentic democratic fiesta. López Obrador, who garnered 31 percent of the vote, was quick to write off the election as a sham, alleging that it "was plagued with irregularities before, during, and after the process." Protesters, many of them belonging to the mostly student movement YoSoy132 (see below), took to the streets in Mexico City and across the country the next day in an "anti-fraud" march. Videos of the protests flooded YouTube; in one, marchers' demands in an underpass—México votó, Peña no ganó!—translate to:"Mexico voted, Peña didn't win!"
In the days after the election, during what's now being dubbed "SorianaGate," the arrival of hundreds of shoppers with prepaid gift cards—supposedly handed out by the PRI campaign—at the Soriana grocery chain around Mexico City sparked suspicion that the PRI had bought votes, though Peña Nieto denied his party's involvement,questioning the credibility of online videos of the Soriana shoppers and claiming they were orchestrated. On July 5, Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) announced that it planned to recount votes at more than half of the country's polling stations, citing inconsistencies. The final results, including the recount, could be in by this Sunday, but the IFE has until September 6 to declare a winner, and the recount could be long and expensive.
A student in the "Yo Soy 132" movement protests media manipulation on a Mexico City metro in mid-June.
"The fact that you can make jokes about extremely tragic subjects is something that people are experts at here in Mexico," says Greg Berger, known as "gringoyo," a contributor to the website Narco News. An expat who says he learned everything about satire from his Mexican friends, Berger spins out political parodies based on archetypes of figures spotted in the country, like "the revolutionary tourist," "the greedy businessman," and "the misinformed reporter." By making fun of foreigners, those in power, and also of himself, Berger engages viewers in conversations about democracy and culture. Reporting in a country where drug cartels are thriving and where the media are in many ways crippled, he's found an audience eager for his lampoons.
And the absurdity seems at an all-time high as Mexico nears its presidential election. Berger is just one of the figures encountered in On the Media's episode "Mexican Media: Es Muy Complicado," in which reporters Brooke Gladstone and Marianne McCune take the temperature of our southern vecino, interviewing reporters, students, and activists from Juarez to Veracruz.
Berger's political theater seems paralleled in the country's actual electoral politics. Gladstone spoke to Benito Nacif, general counsel to Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute (the Mexican version of the FEC), who referenced a recent law that bans candidates from directly buying ads, mandating that the FEI pay for the ads and regulate them instead. The lengthy vetting process the institute requires has in turn opened a space for TV commentators, often paid off by rival candidates in the editorial "black market," to jump in and characterize politicians before they have the chance to respond. "You're making these TV channels more powerful than they were in the past," Nacif says. "It's completely the opposite" of what the FEI intended.
"Mexican Media" also explores mural-painting as rebellion, traces the steps of las mujeres desaparecidas, and zooms in on the student political protests (including the "Yo Soy 132" movement, pictured above) now buzzing in Mexico City. You can listen to the full episode below.
Not five minutes after I sit down with Jad Abumrad for chorizo eggs and a cappuccino at a hotel near the University of California-Berkeley campus, he's helping me to digest what his molecular biologist mom does for a living. "She figured out," he says, "this protein CD36 has a shape so that it can grab fat and put it into a canoe and propel it across the river, so to speak, into a cell."
Radiolab's Top 5 Aha! Moments
1. A musical analogy of a brain creating a thought, "Emergence," Season 1
2. Discovering sperm, "Sperm," Season 5
3. Seeing in ultra-violet, "Colors," Season 10
4. A bullet in orbit, "Escape!," Season 10
5. Why does Furby seem real?, "Talking to Machines," Season 10
Breaking down complex ideas for the rest of us has turned into a glorious, if accidental, career for Abumrad, the 39-year-old creator and cohost of Radiolab, which originated a decade ago at New York public radio station WNYC. The show explores sprawling questions (How does symmetry shape our existence? What goes on inside our gut?) using a distinctive patchwork of memories, sounds, music, and humorous banter. It is now syndicated on some 300 stations, and its insanely popular podcast reaches 2 million listeners monthly. Early in the show's evolution, Abumrad befriended 64-year-old National Public Radio trailblazer Robert Krulwich, who became his cohost in 2005.
But 2011 was one for the books. That March, Radiolab won a George Foster Peabody Award, the medium's highest honor. In September, Abumrad landed a MacArthur "genius" grant—half a million bucks with no strings attached—for his reimagining of the medium. (To the MacArthur caller, he says, "I was like, 'Shut up! Are you kidding me?'") Finally, one of his personal heroes, This American Life host Ira Glass, published an online essay in which he admitted to being a bit jealous of Abumrad's talents. Glass credited Radiolab with creating a "new aesthetic" and Abumrad with spinning out segments "calibrated and machined like an expensive handmade watch."
Despite the accolades, Abumrad is a tad nervous this morning, and not on account of the caffeine. Tonight, for the first time, he and Krulwich will be performing Radiolab Live: In the Dark—a lightly rehearsed live spinoff—in a packed hall before a crowd of thousands. "There's all kinds of crazy shit happening on it that could either be amazing or embarrassing," he says, running one hand briskly through his wiry curls, black with a sprinkling of gray.