KASU

Rae Ellen Bichell

Rae Ellen Bichell is a reporter for NPR's Science Desk. She first came to NPR in 2013 as a Kroc fellow and has since reported Web and radio stories on biomedical research, global health, and basic science. She won a 2016 Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award from the Foundation for Biomedical Research. After graduating from Yale University, she spent two years in Helsinki, Finland, as a freelance reporter and Fulbright grantee.

In the first century, a doctor called Aretaeus of Cappadocia described the rotting smell of "Egyptian ulcers." Ancient Chinese medical literature mentions a disease called "children-killing carbuncle." In 17th century Spain there were references to an illness known as "the strangler."

Fake birth control pills. Cough syrup for children that contained a powerful opioid. Antimalarial pills that were actually just made of potato and cornstarch.

These are, according to the World Health Organization, just a few examples of poor-quality or fake medicines identified in recent years.

In early autumn, it became clear that something was not right in Madagascar.

The country often sees small outbreaks of the bubonic plague, which comes from an infection spread by a flea bite. The disease is now easily treatable with antibiotics.

But this time, the number of cases was growing quickly, and the bacterial infection was spreading in a different, more serious form.

A 79-year-old man picked up an object with his left hand and suddenly felt a sharp pain in his shoulder. Something moved in his upper arm. And with that, he was Popeye.

His right arm looked the same as it always had: lean and sagging a little with age. But his left biceps now sported a baseball-size bulge that looked like it could land a powerful punch. The brand-new muscle mound looked even bigger when the man flexed his biceps. The only thing was, it hurt. A lot.

The day Dr. Roberto Montenegro finished his Ph.D. was memorable. But not for the right reasons.

"I still cringe when I think about it," says Montenegro.

It had started well. His colleagues at UCLA had taken him and his girlfriend (now wife) out to a fancy restaurant to celebrate.

Abstinence may have found its most impressive poster child yet: Diploscapter pachys. The tiny worm is transparent, smaller than a poppy seed and hasn't had sex in 18 million years.

It has basically just been cloning itself this whole time. Usually, that is a solid strategy for going extinct, fast. What is its secret?

In the spring of 2016, there was a frenzy over the threat of Zika virus at Brazil's Olympic Games. As infections reached their peak, a group of scientists called for the games to be moved somewhere else. A number of athletes, worried about sexually transmitting the virus to pregnant partners, chose to stay home.

But a group of researchers with University of Utah and the United States Olympic Committee announced Saturday that they weren't able to find any evidence that U.S. Olympians, Paralympians or staff got Zika virus at all.

This past weekend, basketball players from island nations across the Indian Ocean converged in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, to face off in the regional championships. But no one was to cheer on the teams. The bleachers were empty — because of the plague.

This spring, 16 state patrol officers from Colorado and Wyoming took a couple days off their usual work schedule to do something special. They assembled in a hotel conference room in Denver. As instructed, they wore street clothes for their first assignment: going shopping at nearby marijuana dispensaries.

"It's a brave new world," said instructor Chris Halsor, referring to the years since Colorado legalized recreational marijuana.

The European slug is average in every way: slimy, brownish, shorter than a credit card.

But Arion subfuscus has a minor superpower: When it's scared, it can glue itself to wet surfaces very well, and do so while remaining bendy.

Victoria LaBarre was climbing out of a canyon and into a bright, vast, seemingly lifeless landscape when she started to experience an astronaut's nightmare.

"Suddenly," she said, "I couldn't breathe."

Before she confronts death straight on, Melissa Connor always puts on a pair of rubber boots. The shelf she takes the shoes from includes a bottle of hand sanitizer, a sign warning people to check their shoes for scorpions and a bundle of wooden stakes, each of which will eventually be marked with the abbreviation "Mr." or "Ms." followed by a number.

Three people in New Mexico caught the plague, according to health officials there, who reported the two most recent cases this week.

Yes, this is the same illness that killed an estimated 50 million people across three continents in the 1300s, though these days common antibiotics will get rid of it.

In 2010, Sonia Vallabh watched her mom, Kamni Vallabh, die in a really horrible way.

First, her mom's memory started to go, then she lost the ability to reason. Sonia says it was like watching someone get unplugged from the world. By the end, it was as if she was stuck between being awake and asleep. She was confused and uncomfortable all the time.

"Even when awake, was she fully or was she really? And when asleep, was she really asleep?" says Sonia.

Sonia Vallabh saw her mother die at age 52 from a rare disease that causes irreversible brain damage. Then Sonia learned she has inherited the genetic mutation that killed her mother. She and her husband quit their jobs and trained to become scientists. They're now racing against time to come up with a treatment that could save Sonia's life.

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