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Health, Ethics, and Genetics:
The unending human fascination with novelty is seemingly unhindered by ethics all over the dog breeding world.  Not only are there countless examples of breeders and leaders turning a blind […]

Dogs Defined by Disease

The unending human fascination with novelty is seemingly unhindered by ethics all over the dog breeding world.  Not only are there countless examples of breeders and leaders turning a blind […]

My dogs make it through the 4th of July with the selective use of Melatonin and a ThunderShirt. I suggest you use them too if you have noise phobic dogs. […]

Melatonin + ThunderShirt = Better 4th for Your Fearful Dog

My dogs make it through the 4th of July with the selective use of Melatonin and a ThunderShirt. I suggest you use them too if you have noise phobic dogs. […]

Life With Dogs, whose business model is exploiting animal suffering by aggregating and plagiarizing dog stories that are emotionally manipulative, has come out harshly against dog breeders over a bogus […]

Life With Dogs Attacks Dog Breeders

Life With Dogs, whose business model is exploiting animal suffering by aggregating and plagiarizing dog stories that are emotionally manipulative, has come out harshly against dog breeders over a bogus […]

If you missed RealSports with Bryant Gumble’s report on the ethics of breeding AKC dogs last night on HBO, fear not! Border-Wars worked with the producers over the last several […]

Watch RealSports “Unnatural Selection” on AKC Dogs

If you missed RealSports with Bryant Gumble’s report on the ethics of breeding AKC dogs last night on HBO, fear not! Border-Wars worked with the producers over the last several […]

Be sure to catch HBO’S Real Sports with Bryant Gumble tonight as they are doing a segment on the health and ethics of pedigree dog breeding for which Border-Wars was […]

HBO Asks if Dog Breeding is a “Real Sport”

Be sure to catch HBO’S Real Sports with Bryant Gumble tonight as they are doing a segment on the health and ethics of pedigree dog breeding for which Border-Wars was […]

Dog breeds are not separate species. Still, the majority of the dog fancy behaves and enforces breeding rules as if they were. Having what could be the most extant genetic […]

Minimum Viable Population: 5,000 Adults

Dog breeds are not separate species. Still, the majority of the dog fancy behaves and enforces breeding rules as if they were. Having what could be the most extant genetic […]

Latest Dispatches:

Dog Culture is Religion and Politics

Enough dogma, throw the disc.

Enough dogma, throw the disc.

It’s an often reiterated rule of etiquette to never discuss religion or politics in polite company.  And this is why etiquette is for pussies.

See, “religion and politics” are essentially stand-ins for weltanschuuang – a larger world view that incorporates philosophy, values, and ethics.  The big IMPORTANT things in life unless you’ve tuned out and decided to just get by and let other people do your heavy lifting for you.

The dog world is inherently religious and political and thus any meaningful discussion of the culture is bound to be controversial.

It’s asinine that the most fundamental aspects of culture are off the table “in polite company” and it makes etiquette into a shallow, superficial, fake experience, albeit one that preserves the status quo.  If you can’t work through ethics and values and philosophy what’s the point of everything else?

The obvious reason that such topics are taboo is because they are controversial and most people are not particularly willing to change their stance, especially with the activation energy of a dinner party or meeting with people you frankly don’t care deeply about otherwise.  It usually requires a much more significant event like a death or epiphany to move someone to really question and alter their views in a rapid fashion or the long slow process of erosion of a belief over time against the realities of life.

Thus “just don’t talk about it” is a conflict avoidance mechanism for etiquette doyennes to play fun-police and say NO ARGUMENTS! and keep people happy and the wine in the glasses instead of splashed in faces.

The thing is that this conflict avoidance makes sense when we out-source and up-source the big questions to other people.  The sheep let the shepherd make the choices and worry about the smaller questions of where am I going to eat and poop today.  There’s also an inherent insecurity involved with most world views where having others believe what you believe and act how you act is an evolutionary advantage so when you find yourself in conflict, you change them, they change you, or you get out. Some missionaries employ the tactic to overcome someone’s extant world-view, but by far the most popular strategy is to use family pressure over children and spouses and indoctrination of blank slates via upbringing and control of the schools. It’s no small coincidence that most people adhere to the religion they were born into or married into.

Taking risks and learning things first-hand is hard and can lead to failure so it’s a risk-averse strategy to let others experiment, let others stick their necks out and stay with the herd because it’s easier and safe, even though it’s pretty mindless.

And human culture has positively reinforced this behavior.  Religions and Political Parties are like turn-key weltanschuuang for you to just swallow whole, and both are also highly indoctrinated into youth by their parents and peers right along with language and fashion and a variety of communal behaviors.  And even with their massive and inherent contradictions and flaws almost all social systems enforce the rules on everyone with strict punishments for anyone who doesn’t play the game the “right” way.

Dog culture, the primary focus of this manifesto, is all about Religion and Politics and this is why any discussion about ethics, efficacy, values, faults, and change are inherently impolite.  Registries are hierarchical political organizations that delegate power downward through breed clubs and exercise their power through intellectual property and barriers to entry. They “own” the breeds and issue limited member certificates to distinguish “us” vs. “them.”

The social political structure is also informally enforced by breed matrons and patrons who are typically the most connected breeders to the breed club and the registry and position themselves as “mentors” to select few new breeders and position themselves against most others.  Who gets to use whose stud dog and who selects the judge for which specialty and whose dogs that judge favors are all sorts of social-political drama-inducing behaviors that are entrenched in the culture.

The culture is also religious in the sense that there are just so many elements of the philosophy that must be taken on faith, as they are not science or evidence based — and would not naturally reemerge if they were forgotten, and are thus handed down by indoctrination like all faith-based systems.  The breed standards are part of this ad hoc religion as well as breeding methods like certain inbreeding schemes or sire selection criteria.  So too are puppy rearing techniques and placement behaviors.

If there were an easy, universally effective, and uncontroversial way to tell people they’re wrong or even find the Truth on even a single issue; there would be one government, one belief system, and scientific consensus on every issue.

Failing that, making sausage is going to look messy. There’s just no other way about it. Pick what strategy you want, but they all have their strengths and weaknesses and even the most brilliant and motivated people have yet to find the one-true-way to convince people of some greater truth.

In fact, most of the best methods to win minds are logical fallacies, conspiratorial, manipulative, and used to convince people of falsehoods. Or you don’t try and change minds and just preach to the choir, reinforce extant biases, and cheer-lead instead of lead.

So if you actually want to tackle extant culture head on, it gets messy. It’s part of the process really. It’s not primarily about changing minds and winning hearts, liars do a much better job of that. It’s not about waxing romantic about history or pretending that your little corner of the culture is just superior as-is and above reproach. To me it’s about speaking truth and recognizing things that will be validated not by popularity but by authenticity.

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Comments and disagreements are welcome, but be sure to read the Comment Policy. If this post made you think and you'd like to read more like it, consider a donation to my 4 Border Collies' Treat and Toy Fund. They'll be glad you did. You can subscribe to the feed or enter your e-mail in the field on the left to receive notice of new content. You can also like BorderWars on Facebook for more frequent musings and curiosities.
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Spoils of the Dog War


The small elite group of conformation breeders are Platonists; they believe that the substantive reality of Border Collies is only a reflection of a higher truth, and their activity is the key to divining that perfect essence. The small elite group of trial breeders also believes that there is a higher truth to the Border Collie, that their activity is the key to approaching that truth, and that their philosophy stands above and to the exclusion of all others. But they are not Platonists, as their search is accomplished on a field, not in the mind. The ideal Border Collie is discerned by function, not by a proposed ideal form.

This new Plato seemed familiar to common-sensical Victorians. What do we mean when we use the word “table” if not a real object which resembles more or less well the ideal “table”? Aren’t our real-world tables imperfect examples (“Platonic shadows”) of the ideal?
And living, breathing dog — are they not slightly imperfect versions of the ideal foxhoud or greyhound, setter or collie?
– Donal McCaig, The Dog Wars p185

The AKC Border Collie Breed Standard is tantamount to a bible. It describes the ideal, the platonic, and the perfect. It is the good book that should be followed and mere mortals can’t hope to change what is written. Border Collie conformation faithful are left to interpret the whims of the demi-god judges as they lay out judgment without any sort of feedback or critique; understanding why events happen the way they do is like trying to divine the will of god.

Dog fanciers and their creature, the AKC, really do believe that what is most valuable about any dog can be judged in the show ring, that the show ring is the sole legitimate purpose and reward of all dog breeding. They even believe, against all evidence, that the show ring “improves” breeds.
-Donald McCaig, The Dog Wars p153

The priesthood are those people who are attached to the registry because the dogma of the registry is their dogma, regardless of the practicalities of what other things the registry does. The Third Estate doesn’t have a single platonic breed standard nor a single unified activity. And for what is has in enthusiasm, it lacks in lock-step uniformity and an easy to recite mantra. It is that lack of uniformity that makes the Third Estate easy to dismiss by the koolaid drinking elite within the AKC and ABCA.

The priesthood of the ABCA are the top trialers and their jock-sniffers who are interested and active in the governance and politics and the priesthood of the AKC are conformation showers and their groupies who are likewise active in the governance and politics. Conformation and Trialing are the moral centers, the raison d’etre and the loss-leaders of the two registries.

The priesthood is only capable of surviving because of the large and largely ignorant masses–who use the services of the registries without knowing or caring about what happens in the inner sanctum–pay the bills. The AKC loses big money putting on dog shows and the ABCA admits that without the the majority of their dogs being registered to the hoi polloi pet buyers they’d be financially unable to carry on their mission.

Despite the rhetoric being about the “future of the breed” … the war is really over people, not dogs. The trialers will always be able to breed dogs to suit their herding needs and the show people will always be able to breed pretty dogs. The “breed” is not at stake with either of those groups because they have and always will have the power to breed what they want.

To the First Estate, the Border Collie breed is what it does: a dog that herds sheep with eye. To the Second Estate, the Border Collie breed is what it looks like. The former are Existentialists of function, the later Platonists of form. The First Estate probably wouldn’t care what the other three estates did with their dogs as long as they didn’t call them Border Collies when those dogs aren’t bred specifically for the purpose of herding sheep with eye.

But the First Estate lost the battle over exclusive rights to the name “Border Collie” (who knew there’d come a time when you’d have to trademark the name of a dog breed to ensure artistic control?), and they don’t seem satisfied renaming their dogs to the original and older classification of “working sheepdog.” If the trialists couldn’t own “Border Collie” outright, then they’d have to compete in the open and free market for market-share of the breed. That’s tough since, as Donald McCaig says in this The Dog Wars:

Americans have accepted the dog show credo: “a dog is what it looks like.”
– p53

Americans are thus Platonists instead of Existentialists when it comes to their dogs. This poses a problem to the First and Third Estates who ostensibly desire function over form, and when they do desire form, it is to serve function; e.g., shepherds in the hot dusty Southwest have emphasized a smooth coated dog more appropriate for that environment and flyball breeders have emphasized their dogs’ speed making for thinner and lighter animals with a sleek appearance.


Although trialers and conformationists will always be able to breed dogs to meet their needs, they won’t be guaranteed to sell the cast offs to the pet market without competition. Thus, it’s the large and un-indoctrinated pet market that is the real spoils of the Border Collie War. They are the crude grease that allows the smaller and more sophisticated parts to function.

Registries are at their core simply record keepers of dog sex. That’s it. But that isn’t where the first two Estates stop. To them, simply handing out pedigrees is like the world’s great religions simply handing out genealogies. Religions don’t stop there, they launch campaigns to expand membership, to out-breed the competition, to nitpick who gets to play in their sandbox and who doesn’t. And they establish elaborate bureaucracies and get mired in internal power struggles.

In addition to genealogies, they hand out Bibles and Korans and Torahs, and they exploit elements in those documents to get the masses to turn over their trust, their time, and things of value. Their purview is more than simple facts and objective standards;they deal in morality and ethics and metaphysics. But that’s not how they measure success. They measure success by the number of converts. We have more warm bodies than you.

So despite talking a good game in the churches and mosques and synagogues hoping that their wisdom will shine through and draw in the crowds, history tells us that the most successful religious campaigns happen at the tips of spears, and not the allegorical Spear Longinus. Very real and very contemporary spears of forced conversion and coercion.

It was with one such spear that many members of the Third Estate of Border Collies were marched from the ABCA camp into the AKC camp, never to return again.

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Comments and disagreements are welcome, but be sure to read the Comment Policy. If this post made you think and you'd like to read more like it, consider a donation to my 4 Border Collies' Treat and Toy Fund. They'll be glad you did. You can subscribe to the feed or enter your e-mail in the field on the left to receive notice of new content. You can also like BorderWars on Facebook for more frequent musings and curiosities.
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Dogs Defined by Disease

A sample of dog breeds that are defined by disease.

The unending human fascination with novelty is seemingly unhindered by ethics all over the dog breeding world.  Not only are there countless examples of breeders and leaders turning a blind eye toward inbred disease, out-dated appreciation of population structure and genetics and under-appreciative of health and longevity, there are more than a few dog breeds which are built around disease as their defining trait.  There’s no easy fix for these dog breeds because they are defined by dysfunction and to fix them and bring them to health requires the breed to cease to exist in the form it does now.

We can’t just remove the gene that causes the defining trait — even though it carries with it a disorder, a disease, or some dysfunction — because it is universal and defines what it means to be a member of that breed.  Breeders consider it necessary.

These traits are generally not things that any other breeder who considers themselves ethical would want in their breed should it not exist there already, just as any humane breeder would want to remove those same diseases in their breed if they appeared spontaneously.

There are breeds that are plagued with disease that are not defined by them, such as High Uric Acid in Dalmatians.  If breeders could snap their fingers and remove it, most surely would.  Likewise, Border Collies are in no way benefited by epilepsy or collie eye anomaly even those problems are marked in the breed.  No breeders want them in our breed.  We want them gone.

Sadly, there are too many dog breeds where dysfunction and disease are written in to the breed standard.  No advancement in science will help these breeds, no DNA test will improve their future, because no one in those breeds want those diseases gone.  Some breeders are so enamored with these diseases, they cull the puppies which are born unaffected!

Such disorders are sine qua non to the identity of the breed.  If they didn’t exist, the breed would not exist.  Unlike High Uric Acid or Hip Dysplasia or Canine Epilepsy or any of a hundred other endemic diseases in our breeds, removing a defining disease will require breed standards to be rewritten and minds to be changed instead of health and genetic testing with breeders who are already set against increasing or maintaining disease in their dogs.  The major obstacle is political, not genetic.

Here’s a sample of defining diseases and the breeds they are inextricably linked to:

Abnormal cartilage growth causing short legs:
Basset Hound, Beagle, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Cocker Spaniels, Dachshund, Lhasa Apso, Pekingese, Pomeranian, Scottish Terrier

Dermoid Sinus
A neural tube defect inextricable from the “ridge:”
Rhodesian Ridgeback, Thai Ridgeback

Micromelic Achondroplasia
Abnormal cartilage growth causing short legs and trunk:
Bulldog, Corgi, some Jack Russell Terriers, Pekingese, miniature Poodle, Shar Pei, Shih Tzu, Skye Terrier, Swedish Vallhund

Extra digits on the foot:
Beauceron, Briard, Great Pyrenees,  Norwegian Lundehund

Pituitary (Ateliotic) Dwarfism
Boston Terrier, Chihuahua, Miniature Dachshund, Italian Greyhound, Maltese, Minature Pinscher, Minature Spaniel, Pekingese, Pomeranian, Pug, Shih Tzu, Toy Poodle, Yorkshire Terrier

Congenital Alopecia
Inherited baldness:
American Hairless Terrier,  Chinese Crested Dog, Inca Orchid Hairless Dog, Mexican Hairless Dog, Peruvian Inca Orchid

Color Mutant Alopecia
Hair loss and breakage seen in “Blue” and “Fawn” coat colored dogs: 
Blue Lacys

Brachycephalic Achondroplasia
Boston Terrier, Boxer, Brussels Griffon, Bulldog, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Japanese Chin, Pekingese, Pug, Shih Tzu, Yorkshire Terrier

Periodic Fever Syndrome
Fever, swelling, and Amyloidosis inextricable from the skin folds:
Shar Pei

Congenital Anurousity
Lacking a tail; associated defects of the spine and anus.
(Non-C189G mutation) Boston Terrier, English Bulldog, Miniature Schnauzer;

(C189G mutation) Australian Shepherd, Australian Stumpy Tail Cattle Dog, Braque du Bourbonnais, Brittany Spaniel, Croatian Sheepdog, Mudi, Polish Lowland Sheepdog, Pyrenean Shepherd, Braque Francais, Schipperke, Spanish Water Dog, Pembroke Welsh Corgi

Although some of these conditions are minor in their severity and unlikely to cause major prolonged suffering, it’s still rather dubious that breeders in these breeds are so fixated on these dysfunctions being defining and demanded traits.

Other conditions are so severe that they demand we ask if they are defining of not only the breeds but of Torture Breeding.  Is novelty and aesthetics in these cases really worth the suffering caused?  Is mere tradition enough of an excuse to justify the continued breeding of these dogs?

I continue the discussion of these more severe defining diseases under the “sine qua non disease” category under “health and genetics.”

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Comments and disagreements are welcome, but be sure to read the Comment Policy. If this post made you think and you'd like to read more like it, consider a donation to my 4 Border Collies' Treat and Toy Fund. They'll be glad you did. You can subscribe to the feed or enter your e-mail in the field on the left to receive notice of new content. You can also like BorderWars on Facebook for more frequent musings and curiosities.
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Dog Days of Summer

The “dog days” are the stretch of time in midsummer when the combined heat and humidity make the afternoons unbearable and send humans and dogs alike seeking shelter in cool shade or the forgetfulness of a sultry siesta.

The dog days gestalt is an ancient concept in Western culture dating back at least to the Iliad, the oldest work of Western literature (~800 BC).  Homer uses an allusion to the dog star Sirius no less than three times to describe the sun’s rays off brilliant bronze armor, evoking not only the brightest star but also the concomitant ill fortune and death that is also associated with the summer sauna.

Mastiff head, Thessaly coin, 450 BC

And aging Priam was the first to see him
sparkling on the plain, bright as that star
in autumn rising, whose unclouded rays
shine out amid a throng of stars at dusk–
the one they call Orion’s dog, most brilliant,
yes, but baleful as a sign: it brings
great fever to frail men. So pure and bright
the bronze gear blazed upon him as he ran.

Virgil would parrot Homer 800 years later in his Aeneid:

“… even as when in the clear night comets glow blood-red in the baneful wise; or even as fiery Sirius, that bearer of drought and pestilence to feeble mortals, rises and saddens the sky with baleful light.”

The Greeks gave us the constellation Kyôn, meaning dog, which is one of the most ancient of words across all language.  The brightest star in the constellation and in the entire sky they named Seirios, meaning scorching; colloquially the star was known as Kyôn Aster, literally the dog-star.  The Romans would call the constellation Canis Major, the greater dog, and the star Sirius was referred to as Canicula meaning little dog.  They called the dog days dies caniculares meaning days of the little dogs, recognizing both Sirius and Canis Minor’s brightest star Procyon (meaning ‘before the dog’ seeing as it would rise in the sky before Sirius) as the two dog stars of summer.

Beware the Dog, from Pompeii

In ancient times, the Dog Star would return to the sky after a 70 day absence just before the annual flooding of the Nile in late July.  Because of Sirius’ brightness and proximity to the Sun during its return–what we call a star’s heliacal rising–the ancients believed that it added its heat to that of the sun creating the hotter weather.

This event was so central to the Egyptian culture that they timed their year on the cycle of this star which they called Sothis and deified as the goddess Sopdet; they also designed their mummification process to match this 70 day observance.  This calendar is called both the Sothic cycle and the Canicular period, and it gave the Egyptians a sidereal year that matches the one we use today almost exactly at 365.25 days per year.

The Egyptian timing of their new year survives in the Greek name for the winds which descend upon  the Mediterranean coinciding with the dog days.  The Etesian winds (from the Greek for year), are an annual phenomenon which the fishermen referred to as the “meltem” short for mal temps meaning bad times.  The strength of the winds caused hazardous conditions for the small craft, but on land they brought welcome relief to the stagnant conditions characteristic of the dog days.

The Etesiae blow after the summer solstice and the rising of the dog-star: not at the time when the sun is closest nor when it is distant; and they blow by day and cease at night. The reason is that when the sun is near it dries up the earth before evaporation has taken place, but when it has receded a little its heat and the evaporation are present in the right proportion; so the ice melts and the earth, dried by its own heat and that of the sun, smokes and vapours.

- Aristotle, Meteorology  350 B.C.

Aristotle also mentions the dog days in both Physics and Metaphysics.

We do not ascribe to chance or mere coincidence the frequency of rain in winter, but frequent rain in summer we do; nor heat in the dog-days, but only if we have it in winter.

If in the dog-days there is wintry and cold weather, we say this is an accident, but not if there is sultry heat, because the latter is always or for the most part so, but not the former.

Dog and Star petroglyph, Utah

As the classical derivation of the name faded, the common folk embellished the days with their own interpretations.  Common wisdom said that the days would make women more passionate and men more feverish, and dogs themselves would succumb more easily to rabies, lethargy, and madness.  People under the influence of Sirius were called “star struck,” “dogging,” or “dog tired” and we retain these uses today.

Dogs, of all animals, were thought most affected by the annual reappearance of Sirius. Dogs were believed to suffer at this time of year and their panting was an indication of internal desiccation and excessive dryness.  When this occurred, dogs were in danger of becoming rabid and their saliva poisonous.  Humans could then become rabid and die from a dog bite.

-  Sirius: Brightest Diamond in the Night Sky, J.B. Holberg

The association of the dog star is not uniquely Western, hinting at an even more ancient cultural association.  The ancient Chinese called Sirius Tian Lang for “heavenly wolf” and associated it with the bridge between heaven and hell.  Their interpretation mirrors the ancient Egyptian as the soul must be weighed and perfected before passage is allowed.

Clay dog from Nineveh, c. 645 BC

The ancient Babylonians referred to Sirius as ‘Kak-shisha translated “the Dog that Leads” and alternately “a star of the south.”   Later Mesopotamian cuneiform call the star Kal-bu “the dog” and Kakab-lik-u the “Star of the Dog.”  The Assyrians called it “Dog of the Sun,”  The ancient Akkadians named it “Dog Star of the Sun,” and the Phoenicians dubbed it Hannabeah “the one who barks.”

There are also numerous and intriguing associations of Sirius with dogs and wolves from throughout North America. To the Alaskan Inuit of the Bering Straits, Sirius is the “Moon Dog.”  When the moon comes near Sirius, high winds will follow.  Among the Tohono O’odham of the southwestern deserts, Sirius is the dog that follows mountain sheep, a description that was shared with the Seri who lived to the south along the Gulf of California, in Mexico.

To the Blackfoot of the north-western Great Plains the star was “dog-face.”  Among the Cherokee, whose ancestral home was the central Appalachian Mountain region, Sirius and Antares are the dog stars that guard the ends of the “path of souls,” the Milky Way.  Sirius, in the winter sky, guards the eastern end, while Antares, in the summer sky, guards the western end.  A departing soul must carry enough food to placate both dogs and pass beyond, or spend eternity wandering the “path of souls.”

Alternatively, the Pawnee of Nebraska have an elaborate and well-developed mythology tied to the heavens.  The Skidi (or Wolf) band of the Pawnee call Sirius the “Wolf Star” and the “White Star.”  According to Skidi cosmology, Sirius brought death into the world and would escort deceased tribal members along the “spirit pathway” (the Milky Way) to the place of the dead in the south.  During times of a sacrificial ceremony, a tribal representative of the White Star would sit in the southwest corner of the lodge to watch over the ill-fated sacrificial maiden.  Among other Pawnee, Sirius was the Coyote Star, the trickster.  The Northern Osage, of the south-central United States, regarded Sirius as the “Wolf that hangs by the side of Heaven.”

- ibid

It should not be surprising that our cultural ties with dogs are so ingrained and universal. Sadly, cuddling up to one of them when the weather is like this only reminds me of the more sweltering connotations of this time of year.  That doesn’t stop me though, they’re too cute to kick off the bed.

Happy Dog Days!

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Comments and disagreements are welcome, but be sure to read the Comment Policy. If this post made you think and you'd like to read more like it, consider a donation to my 4 Border Collies' Treat and Toy Fund. They'll be glad you did. You can subscribe to the feed or enter your e-mail in the field on the left to receive notice of new content. You can also like BorderWars on Facebook for more frequent musings and curiosities.
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The US Gov’t sucks at Bio-Containment


Questioning the decision to bring two live, infected, and contagious US citizens home for treatment of their Ebola is not simply fear mongering or hysteria: there is a perfectly rational risk-averse calculation that can be made without raising one’s blood pressure and calling down the end of the world.

In fact, a simple review of the documented risk of accidental infection by medical professionals and even highly secure government bio-hazard facilities should leave one with ample reason to remain skeptical of the decision to treat these people on American soil.

Hint: we’ve already had a professional virologist exposed to Ebola in a US Biosafety Level 4 laboratory, a Russian scientist has actually died from exposing herself to Ebola in a similar lab, a German scientist who stuck herself with an Ebola laced needle, and a researcher in the UK gave himself an Ebola/Marburg-like hemorrhagic fever while processing samples from African patients.

In 2004, a virologist at USAMRIID was working in a BSL-4 laboratory with mice that had been infected 2 days before with a mouse-adapted variant of the Zaire species of Ebola virus (ZEBOV) (2). The virulence and infectious dose of this variant of ZEBOV are unknown in humans; wild-type virus has a case-fatality rate of up to 90% (3).

The person had been following standard procedure, holding the mice while injecting them intraperitoneally with an immune globulin preparation. While the person was injecting the fifth mouse with a hypodermic syringe that had been used on previous mice, the animal kicked the syringe, causing the needle to pierce the person’s left-hand gloves, resulting in a small laceration. The virologist immediately squeezed the site to force the extravasation of blood. After decontamination of the blue suit in the chemical shower, the injured site was irrigated with 1 liter of sterile water and then scrubbed with povidone-iodine for 10 minutes.

In terms of exposure risk, the needle was presumed to be contaminated with virus-laden blood, although it was suspected that low levels of virus were present on the needle. The animals had not yet manifested signs of infection, and much contamination may have been removed mechanically when the needle pierced the gloves. The local decontamination of the site also reduced potential for infection.

USAMRIID medical, scientific, and executive staff concluded that the person with potential exposure warranted quarantine in the MCS. Contact plus airborne precautions (gown, gloves, N95 mask, eye protection) were used, with a plan to upgrade to BSL-4 precautions for signs or symptoms of illness. These extra precautions were instituted while the patient was asymptomatic for several reasons: 1) the timing of initial clinical manifestations with regard to potential for shedding virus were not known for this specific isolate in human infection; 2) there was interest in ensuring all infection control procedures were being followed appropriately in advance of clinical illness; and 3) there was interest in reducing any potential confounders, such as a caregiver transmitting a febrile respiratory infection to the patient, which might lead to unnecessary procedures or additional isolation. The person was monitored for routine vital signs; daily laboratory studies (coagulation studies, blood counts, chemistries, viral isolation, D-dimer) and regular physician assessments were performed.

Over the next several days, discussions were held with several internationally recognized filovirus experts regarding potential treatments or postexposure prophylaxis options. Local and state public health officials were also notified. The consensus opinion was that there was no safe, readily available source of immune plasma and little evidence existed to support its use. Emergency investigational new drug (IND) protocols were established for treatment with recombinant nematode protein (rNAPc2) and antisense oligomers, with the intention to consider implementation only if the patient demonstrated evidence of infection.

Ultimately, none of the 5 mice had confirmed viremia at the time of the incident. The patient did not become ill or seroconvert and was discharged after 21 days. The story received national and local media attention (4,5).

This case was ideal, a form of the virus that might not be infectious to humans, the virus had not been established in the mice at the time of the accident, and the exposure site was small.  The details of the Russian accident mere months following the US accident are not as detailed but the result is decidedly worse:

A Russian scientist at a former Soviet biological weapons laboratory in Siberia has died after accidentally sticking herself with a needle laced with ebola, the deadly virus for which there is no vaccine or treatment, the lab’s parent Russian center announced over the weekend.

Scientists and officials said the accident had raised concerns about safety and secrecy at the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology, known as Vector, which in Soviet times specialized in turning deadly viruses into biological weapons. Vector has been a leading recipient of aid in an American program to help former Soviet scientists and labs convert to peaceful research.

Although the accident occurred May 5, Vector did not report it to the World Health Organization until last week. Scientists said that although Vector had isolated the scientist to contain any potential spread of the disease and there was no requirement that accidents involving ebola be reported, the delay meant that scientists at the health agency could not provide prompt advice on treatment that might have saved her life.

The earliest documented case of oopsy-poopsy Ebola infection comes from the UK in 1976:

In November 1976 an investigator at the Microbiological Research Establishment accidentally inoculated himself while processing material from patients in Africa who had been suffering from a haemorrhagic fever of unknown cause. He developed an illness closely resembling Marburg disease, and a virus was isolated from his blood that resembled Marburg virus but was distinct serologically. The course of the illness was mild and may have been modified by treatment with human interferon and convalescent serum. Convalescence was protracted; there was evidence of bone-marrow depression and virus was excreted in low titre for some weeks. Recovery was complete. Infection was contained by barrier-nursing techniques using a negative-pressure plastic isolator and infection did not spread to attendant staff or to the community.

And the most recent case comes from 2009:

A virologist working in the BSL-4 laboratory pricked herself in the finger during a mouse experiment on 12 March 2009. The syringe contained ZEBOV from culture supernatant that had been concentrated by ultracentrifugation and mixed 1:1 with incomplete Freund’s adjuvant for immunization of mice. The material was injected into the animal before the accident happened. When the laboratory worker tried to recap the needle, it penetrated the cap laterally and subsequently all 3 gloves. The puncture site on the skin was visible, but it did not bleed. The wound was disinfected after leaving the laboratory.

The virologist was not hospitalized for several days.

The patient voluntarily agreed on being hospitalized on 13 March. The responsible public health authorities, infectious disease specialists, and virologists considered the risk of virus transmission during the incubation period extremely low, as available epidemiological evidence indicates that Ebola virus is spread by ill or deceased patients through direct contact with infectious body fluids [1–3].

Ultimately the patient never developed symptoms of Ebola and it’s not documented that the accident lead to an actual sufficient exposure. But what’s greatly troubling is that the accident caught the BL-4 community with their pants down regarding what to do in such a case:

One may ask why the team in Hamburg chose this ad hoc procedure and not activated a defined operational plan to manage the patient. The Bernhard Nocht Institute followed a general operational plan for the management of accidental laboratory exposures, which included agreements with the Infectious Diseases Unit at the University Medical Center. Both virologists and clinicians in Hamburg had been aware of experimental treatment options as published in the literature.

However, like other BSL-4 facilities or infectious diseases units, which do not work on filovirus vaccines and therapeutics in NHPs or have contributed to field missions in filovirus outbreaks, they lacked the personal experience with this matter, the access to unpublished data, and the link to suppliers of investigational drugs and vaccines for making a choice among the different options. While a comprehensive set of general recommendations for the management of accidental laboratory exposures in BSL-3 and BSL-4 laboratories is available [32], there are no pathogen-specific recommendations for medical treatment of a case, especially for filoviruses. The BSL-4 laboratory community should consider establishing such recommendations.

Now we have a form of Ebola that is very human-infectious, in fact it’s infected more people this year than in any other year, ever.  And we’re not dealing with the simple containment of mice, we’re dealing with the force and uncertainty of humans who might very well be dying.  Namely, the challenges one faces in a traditional medical setting in addition to the much more routine and controlled environment in a laboratory (hint: medical professionals face even higher rates of accidental infection than lab workers).

Additionally we’re also very much facing a situation where Ebola will be handled more often by more researchers and other medical professionals on US soil than ever before.  Ebola accidents are likely rare because the mere handling of Ebola is rare.

Other types of laboratory-acquired infections are not rare, especially for viruses and bacteria that are handled more often than Ebola.

Ebola Outbreaks 1976-2014

Ebola Outbreaks 1976-2014

To my knowledge there isn’t some easily accessible database of accidents and accidental infections that’s available to the public, but when the US Government decided to expand and renovate their High Containment Facilities at USAMRIID (Fort Detrick, Maryland) to replace and augment the one built in 1969, they had to file an Environmental Impact Statement which was reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences. The information therein is troubling.

For one thing, the review found that USAMRIID’s application was dubious in it’s own assessment of risk.  Basically the Government is bullshitting the public about the actual risks.

“The maximum credible event analysis (required by the EIS) involved simulation of biological aerosol releases from Biosafety Level (BSL)-3 and BSL-4 laboratories.  In the scenarios, Coxiella burnetii (requiring BSL-3 containment) and Ebola Zaire virus (requiring BSL-4 containment) were released to the surrounding environment from an exhaust stack after vials in a centrifuge leaked and air filters failed to filter the pathogens.  The EIS estimates that ground concentrations would be insignificant and would not pose a hazard to the nearby community.

However, the committee was unable to verify this prediction, because the modeling performed in support of the scenarios was not transparent, could not be reproduced, and was incomplete.

Specifically, the data and parameterizations used in in the computerized simulation scenarios were not provided in the EIS and the model software (Hazard Prediction and Assessment Capability model) is a closed-source system not available for independent review.  The committee attempted to verify the calculations using common alternative models.  The committee’s calculations indicated the potential for significantly higher doses of infectious agents following puff releases than was described in the EIS.

The EIS contained no documentation of an indivisual’s risk of infection under the prescribed conditions or any description of the effect of population density and population size on the number of cases expected for any of the pathogens of interest.  Furthermore, the scenarios only considered exposures beyond the Fort Detrick fence line, with no consideration of exposure to USAMRIID workers or other people on the base.”

The review had access to USAMRIID’s records on laboratory-acquired infections, and that last bit (no consideration of USAMRIID worker infection) is damning because USAMRIID does not have a clean bill of health regarding laboratory-acquired infections.

In the 14 years between 1989 and 2002, USAMRIID had 234 exposure/illness incidents with 5 confirmed laboratory-acquired infections: Glanders (BL-3), Q fever (BL-3), Vaccinia (BL-2/3), Chikungunya (BL-3) and Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis (BL-3).

“Between 1943 and 1969, the Offensive Biological Warfare Research Program logged 452 diagnosed infections, for an average of 16 laboratory acquired infections per year.”

The rate of infections from the implicated diseases has dropped since due to vaccination of laboratory workers against Tularemia, Q fever, and Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis.  None of these vaccines are given to the public on a routine basis.

Even more troubling, at least two USAMRIID employees in recent years were infected with deadly agents and did not notify USAMRIID or seek treatment from the specially provided clinics on base!

“Since 2000 (reported in 2010), there have been two known cases in which [exposed and infected] USAMRIID workers failed to seek medical attention at the SIP clinic and also appeared to have failed to disclose that they were USAMRIID employees to the off-base physicians from whom they sought medical care.  These failures delayed prompt diagnosis and treatment, and have raised community concerns about the potential for secondary transmission (that is, infection of others through contact).”

And the situation just gets worse when we consider that all of the above are in laboratory environments, not treating infectious patients in a medical setting.

“Common risks to [laboratory] workers are needle or sharps-stick accidents, inadvertent aerosol generation that leads to inhalation or ocular/mucosal exposure, and contact with infected laboratory animals.”

Trying to put a number on the actual rates of laboratory-acquired infections is difficult because of no systematic reporting.

In a 2002–2004 survey of clinical laboratory directors who participate in ClinMicroNet, an online forum sponsored by the American Society of Microbiology, 33% of laboratories reported the occurrence of at least 1 laboratory-associated infection.

Even so, what data we do have is troubling.

An estimated 500,000 workers are employed in laboratories in the United States [1]. These workers are exposed to a variety of pathogenic microorganisms that may put them at risk of infection. However, the precise risk posed to individual laboratory workers after an exposure is difficult to determine, in part because of a lack of systematic reporting.

Current available data are limited to retrospective and voluntary postal surveys, anecdotal case reports, and reports about selected outbreaks with specific microorganisms.

Laboratory workers frequently become unwittingly infected through hitherto unexpected modes of transmission. This was illustrated by the first laboratory-acquired case of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) coronavirus, which occurred ∼4 months after the end of the SARS epidemic [2]. A 27-year-old microbiology graduate student in Singapore, who was working with a nonattenuated strain of West Nile virus, was evaluated for flulike symptoms. The patient denied any exposure to SARS and had no travel history. He was discharged from the emergency department but returned 5 days later because of persistent fever. Because Singapore remained in a heightened state of alert for SARS, a polymerase chain reaction assay was performed with a sputum specimen and returned a positive result for SARS coronavirus. Additional epidemiologic investigation revealed that the laboratory where he worked was also involved in research on SARS coronavirus and that one of the cell cultures of West Nile virus was contaminated with the same infecting strain of SARS coronavirus. Although this case represents an exceptional event, it serves to highlight the inherent risk posed to laboratory workers by virtue of their occupation.

There have even been notable outbreaks of viral hemorrhagic fevers, much like Ebola, due to exposures outside of clinical (BL-4) settings.

Viral agents transmitted through blood and bodily fluids cause most of the laboratory-acquired infections in diagnostic laboratories and among health care workers [1]. Although the viral hemorrhagic fevers incite the most fear and dominate the imagination of the media and public, the viruses responsible are rare causes of laboratory infection [3, 4]. However, there is always the possibility that an agent not previously seen may be encountered. This occurred in 1967, when 31 workers were infected while handling tissue specimens from African green monkeys, with 7 deaths resulting [38]. The causative agent was named Marburg virus, after the town in Germany where most cases occurred.

It should be obvious that Ebola infections in the laboratory are rare because working with Ebola is rare.  But it’s going to become a lot less rare now that two fresh Ebola sources have entered the country and any number of people and organizations will likely get samples of the virus and come into contact with those samples that would not have done so otherwise.

But we aren’t just shipping in two vials of Ebola, two samples for laboratory use, we’re shipping in two living but infectious human beings into a heightened but no less problematic hospital setting.

Hospital situations offer many more risks. Just consider for a second the sheer volume of Ebola infected bodily fluids that are present in an entire human versus in a small petri dish. And consider how much harder it is to draw fluids or inject fluids into a live human versus transfer solutions between sealed vials or working with rats.

When we look at hospital-acquired infections the numbers get even worse.

“Of the common blood-associated viruses, hepatitis B virus (HBV) is the most common cause of laboratory-acquired infection [1]. The incidence of HBV infection among all health care workers in the United States is estimated to be 3.5–4.6 infections per 1000 workers, which is 2–4 times than the level for the general population [39].”

Consider that, like before, we don’t even know about all or even most of the hospital-acquired illnesses because there’s no central or mandated reporting, but even so we still have continuing evidence that professionals who know the risks and the precautions are still getting themselves infected.

During 2005–2006, there were 802 confirmed cases of acute hepatitis C reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with 5 occupational exposures (1.5%) to blood [40]. However, there are few data on the incidence of hepatitis C among laboratory workers, and only single case reports in surveys have been performed in the United States and the United Kingdom [8-10].

And it’s not just more common diseases. Most doctors will never see a case of HIV, but a non-trivial number of professionals have acquired the disease in the course of their work, 75% in clinical settings and 25% in laboratory settings.

Data on occupational transmission of HIV from the period 1981–1992 revealed a total of 32 health care workers in the United States with occupationally acquired HIV infection; 25% of these health care workers were laboratory workers.

So accidents happen all the time and highly trained and experienced virologists working with huge budgets in cutting edge labs have already screwed up, infected themselves with Ebola, and died.

This is not a hypothetical.

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