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Parasites: Tales of Humanity's Most Unwelcome Guests

Rosemary Drisdelle
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Hidden away within living tissues, parasites are all around us-and inside us. Yet, despite their unsavory characteristics, as we find in this compulsively readable book, parasites have played an enormous role in civilizations through time and around the globe.Parasites: Tales of Humanity's Most Unwelcome Guestsputs amoebae, roundworms, tapeworms, mites, and others at the center of the action as human cultures have evolved and declined. It shows their role in exploration, war, and even terrorist plots, often through an unpredictable ripple effect. It reveals them as invisible threats in our food, water, and luggage; as invaders that have shaped behaviors and taboos; and as unexpected partners in such venues as crime scene investigations.Parasitesalso describes their evolution and life histories and considers their significant benefits. Deftly blending the sociological with the scientific, this natural and social history of parasites looks closely at a fascinating, often disgusting group of organisms and discovers that they are in fact an integral thread in the web of life.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94578-4
    Subjects: Zoology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VIII)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. IX-X)
    (pp. XI-XII)
    (pp. XIII-XIV)
    (pp. XV-XVI)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    Parasites are all around us. Consider the ones that infect humans: hundreds of species live in human intestines, skin, lungs, muscle, brain, liver, blood, and everywhere else they can find a niche. Some of these parasites can liveonlyin humans. When you realize that virtually every species of animal has a similarly large collection, and then acknowledge that plants have many as well, you begin to understand how numerous parasites really are. Even parasites have parasites.

    Parasites are an odd and exceedingly diverse assortment of life forms that defy generalization: essentially their actions define them. The wordparasitewas...

  7. ONE Ambush Parasites that have changed human history
    (pp. 5-33)

    The degree to which various parasites have interfered in human affairs cannot be overstated. Parasitic diseases such as schistosomiasis, sleeping sickness, and malaria affect millions and muddle plans in everything from exploration to foreign aid. Others cast a more subtle shadow but still wield enormous power. They wipe out populations; they topple fragile ecosystems. The monsters hiding under our beds when we were children grew up to be parasites. For those of us who grew up in the cloistered “first world,” they fill us with a distant dread, and rightly so; for everyone else, the monsters have always had always...

  8. TWO Market of Peril Parasites versus food safety regulations—is anything safe to eat?
    (pp. 34-58)

    If you want to avoid foodborne illness, don’t eat.

    The problem with food, usually, is what we can’t see: while lions, wolves, and crocodiles are wilderness predators, parasites, bacteria, and even viruses prowl the grocery store. Because most are microscopic, we have no idea we’re stalked until it’s too late, and typically, we know nothing about the patch of earth or water that a plant or animal product has come from, so we can’t predict the likelihood of trouble if we eat it. In the realm of food safety, however, ignorance is not bliss: most of our parasites are swallowed....

  9. THREE Drinking-Water Advisory How parasites get into our water and what we try to do about it
    (pp. 59-81)

    The truck driver says it’s “a Cambodian journey.”

    A haze of fine dust hangs in the air as about thirty travelers, tourists, and locals coated with the red stuff climb out of a couple of half-ton trucks and scramble down a steep riverbank. Single file, we step courageously across the gap to the listing bow of a covered passenger boat. About two-thirds go below; the rest of us arrange ourselves on the flat roof, tucked between bags, packages, and backpacks in the hot Cambodian sun. It is late February, the dry season. There will be no rain today.

    In the...

  10. FOUR Illegal Aliens The unintentional but persistent global movement of parasites by humans
    (pp. 82-104)

    Imagine a diagram of the human body in which parasites represent the organs and other structures. The skin is mites, fly larvae, and microfilariae.¹ Trails of malaria parasites, trypanosomes, worm larvae, and schistosomes show blood circulation. Muscles are made ofTrichinellalarvae andToxoplasmacysts. Flukes and tapeworm scolices shape the liver. So many parasites crowd the intestines that it’s difficult to find them all.

    Now think of the body as a suitcase—luggage that can’t be opened, x-rayed, or searched to reveal the parasites within. A packer and shipper of parasite relocation, your body takes along your parasites wherever...

  11. FIVE Parasites in Control As in science fiction, some parasites do take over their hosts
    (pp. 105-124)

    According to old testament scriptures, after defeating the Canaanites, the “children of Israel” had a lot of trouble with fiery serpents. They

    journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way. And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread. And the lord sent fiery serpents among the...

  12. SIX In the House of Mirrors Good, bad, and imaginary—the cultural meanings and practical uses of parasites, and the power of fear
    (pp. 125-149)

    Western medicine, textbook definitions, and the court of public opinion in developed countries agree: parasites are bad. Similarly, modern parasitology textbooks give the impression that we understand what parasites do and how they do it. But when we drag a parasite out into the light and examine it from every angle—medical, cultural, historical, environmental, and emotional—we find that it has as many faces as a clown in a house of mirrors. It means different things to different people. The significance of a parasite is in the eye of the beholder. To test this statement, simply present a freshly...

  13. SEVEN The Parasite Felonies Criminals who cast their lot in with parasites
    (pp. 150-172)

    Forensic parasitology is a discipline that doesn’t exist in any formal sense. Unlike the insects of interest in forensic entomology, which are virtually certain to arrive in a more or less predictable fashion whenever there is an exposed corpse—and thus provide important information about a crime—parasites become involved in crime in wildly unpredictable ways.¹ They may be red herrings, as in the case of Victoria Climbié, instruments of torture and capital punishment in the hands of ancient Persian kings, or imaginary masterminds of political assassinations—but such opportunities are rare.

    Occasionally a crime investigator stumbles on a parasite...

  14. EIGHT Emerging Parasites The ones that seem to come out of nowhere, and where they really come from
    (pp. 173-195)

    We would be mistaken to think that we have already met and catalogued all of the life forms that can parasitize humans or that no new human parasites will evolve in the future. As we change, and as we change things in our environment, our parasites change as well. The body louse of humans is a fairly recent example of parasite evolution.

    In twelfth-century England, Archbishop Thomas Becket was a suitable host for body lice because he wore many layers of fabric that were seldom washed (see chapter 6). Anthropologists remind us, however, that people didn’t always wear clothes. Our...

  15. NINE Parasite Extinction Can we ever get rid of these unwelcome guests?
    (pp. 196-215)

    We hear that african trypanosomiasis has reemerged in Africa, that malaria kills about a million people every year despite decades of fighting it, that bedbugs are becoming resistant to pesticides, that all surface waters are now contaminated with cryptosporidium and giardia. Anyone would think that parasites are the most indestructible creatures on earth. But parasites are going extinct every day. Why not ours?

    Many parasite species are being lost through coextinction: their hosts become extinct, and because they can’t live anywhere else, they perish too. Our parasites, especially the ones that live only on humans, are still here because we...

  16. Epilogue
    (pp. 216-218)

    Our cultural bias maintains that parasites are inherently bad. If we could eradicate them one by one, where would we stop? At disease-causing parasites of humans? At parasites that afflict humans and domestic animals? Perhaps at those that cause significant disease as a result of our activities, our interference with the environment? How would the extinction of a few—or many—parasitic species affect populations and ecosystems, and should we weigh these effects against the expected benefits of their demise? These questions plunge us into a moral-ethical tangle.

    This dilemma isn’t new. An old idea with a somewhat narrower focus—...

  17. NOTES
    (pp. 219-234)
    (pp. 235-248)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 249-258)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 259-259)