doc w/ Pen

journalist + medical student + artist

Tag: infectious disease

My brush with the ‘winged scourge’


“Shit, do I have malaria?”

That was one of my first thoughts upon returning to the United States from Uganda in late July. I remember thinking that as I was waiting in the customs line at JFK airport in New York City. I’d spent my 12-hour connecting flight from Doha, Qatar, huddled under a thin fleece blanket, shivering, my head and whole body aching. My stomach hurt. I had diarrhea. Potential signs of malaria, I knew.

This was reinforced in our parasitology presentation yesterday, the lecturer saying:

Fever + travel = malaria … until proven otherwise.

Sleeping under a mosquito net every night was part of my malaria prevention in Uganda.

Sleeping under a mosquito net every night was part of my malaria prevention in Uganda.

While in Uganda, I had spent every night under a mosquito net. I’d religiously taken my Malarone (malaria prophylaxis) as directed. But … my mosquito repellant application had been less than diligent. The bugs weren’t really about during the day, and I was already applying a sticky layer of sunscreen. So I decided to spray myself only in the evening. Problem was, I’d be sitting out on the back porch, drinking Ugandan beer and talking with my friends, and completely forget about the DEET. So a number of mosquitoes got lucky with me. It seemed like even when I applied the spray though, it didn’t make much of a difference. But either way, I had something to fuel my paranoia. And boy, are medical school students good at being paranoid about their health.

Thankfully, I didn’t have malaria — it was probably a stomach virus. Several people I’d been traveling with got something similar. But it was scary. I plan on returning to Uganda for future research, and I certainly will be more careful with the bugs next time. Just in case. No reason to tempt fate.

I’ve always thought of malaria as mainly a travel-related illness. And these days, it is. Interestingly though, I learned in our lecture about how much of the United States was affected by malaria even into the 1940s in several Southeastern states. This was such a big deal that the U.S. government worked with Walt Disney studios to bring back the Seven Dwarves in 1943 to teach people how to knock out mosquitoes, the vectors that transmit malaria. The short film was called “The Winged Scourge,” and I found it on YouTube after hearing it briefly mentioned in our lecture. I couldn’t resist sharing the video (see the top of the page). It’s just under 10 minutes, and it’s hilarious. You’ve got the booming, ominous voice warning you of the winged villain. And then you’ve got the beloved dwarves doing their best to exterminate the critters, and of course getting into mischief along the way.

Some of the advice still holds, like eliminating standing water to get rid of places for mosquitoes to lay their eggs. Though I’d guess there are other methods to try before you lay down an oil slick on ponds to asphyxiate the larvae swimming below. Not too good for the rest of the environment.

It’s a piece of history — of public health history, and of cartoon history. As a socially conscious future physician who was raised on Disney movies, what more could you ask?


Note: If you’re curious about the history of malaria eradication in the United States, here is an interesting (and brief) explanation from the CDC.

Some little bug is gonna find you …

Bacteria are everywhere.

I’m reminded of this fact as I enter my last class-based unit of medical school, infectious disease. With this in mind, I’m also reminded of a song that my family listened to during my childhood. This was back in the day when people made “mixed tapes” with cassettes, not with an iTunes playlist. A friend of my dad’s made us this particular tape in the mid-1980s. It was a favorite on cross-country road trips to visit my grandparents in Colorado and Kansas. The tape was full of folksy songs about trains, whales, Star Trek, and … gut bugs.

“Some Little Bug” apparently dates back to the early 1900s. This particular version, which I’ve uploaded to YouTube and shared here, was digitized from that old cassette tape. You’ll find the lyrics below the YouTube link.

Enjoy. But not while eating.

“Some Little Bug”

In these days of indigestion it is oftentimes a question
As to what to eat and what to leave alone.
Every microbe and bacillus has a different way to kill us
And in time they all will claim us for their own.
There are germs of every kind in every food that you can find
In the market or upon the bill of fare.
Drinking water’s just as risky as the so-called “deadly” whiskey
And it’s often a mistake to breathe the air.

Some little bug is gonna to find you someday.
Some little bug will creep behind you someday.
Then he’ll send for his bug friends
And all your troubles they will end,
For some little bug is gonna find you someday.

The luscious green cucumber, it’s most everybody’s number
While sweetcorn has a system of its own.
And, that radish seems nutritious, but its behavior is quite vicious
And a doctor will be coming to your home.
Eating lobster, cooked or plain, is only flirting with ptomaine,
While an oyster often has a lot to say.
And those clams we eat in chowder make the angels sing the louder
For they know that they’ll be with us right away.

Some little bug is gonna to find you someday.
Some little bug will creep behind you someday.
Eat that juicy sliced pineapple,
And the sexton dusts the chapel
Oh, yes, some little bug is gonna find you someday.

When cold storage vaults I visit, I can only say, “What is it
Makes poor mortals fill their systems with such stuff?”
Now, at breakfast prunes are dandy if a stomach pump is handy
And a doctor can be called quite soon enough.
Eat a plate of fine pig’s knuckles and the headstone cutter chuckles
While the gravedigger makes a mark upon his cuff.
And eat that lovely red bologna and you’ll wear a wood kimona
As your relatives start packing up your stuff.

Those crazy foods they fix, they’ll float us ‘cross the River Styx
Or start us climbing up the Milky Way.
And those meals they serve in courses mean a hearse and two black horses
So before meals, some people always pray.
Luscious grapes breed appendicitis, while their juice leads to gastritis
So there’s only death to greet us either way.
Fried liver’s nice, but mind you, friends will follow close behind you
And the papers, they will have nice things to say.

Some little bug is gonna to find you someday.
Some little bug will creep behind you someday.
Eat that spicy bowl of chili and on your breast we’ll plant a lily
Oh yes some little bug is gonna find you someday.