Tag Archives: TB

A Plague of Bones: Conference!

Without a doubt, my favourite research project I have ever been a part of is the ancient Pathogens project. This was my research focus during my Visiting Professorship at the University of Sassari, Sardinia, Italy in 2010. This was my Indian Jones moment, except the treasure was not rare artifacts but the discovery of ancient pathogens.

In Sardinia there is an abundance of ancient and medieval mass graves (see burial map).  Although these mass graves data back more than 3,000 years, the reason for the mass grave construction still remains a mystery.  Thereby a fascinating scientific problem exists:  What did these people buried together die from?

Archeology of Sardinia

We hypothesized that by sequencing the nonhuman DNA extracted from the bones and teeth of the victims in the mass graves, we could identify a pathogen that may have infected these people and caused their death.   Our list of pathogenic suspects that may have caused death included Yersinia pestis, Salmonella enterica, Bacillos anthracis, Mycobacterium tuberculosis.  This mode of attack, sequencing ancient DNA to determine cause of death, is not new and previous examples include identification of Salmonella enterica enterica serovar Thypi as the causative agent of the ancient plague of Athens in 430 BC [1] and Yersinia pestis as the agent of the Black Plague [2–4] although the later has been disputed [5].   Importantly, mass graves are commonly devised during a disease outbreak to limit the spread of disease, as in Europe during the Black Plague.  Therefore, we speculated that the people buried together in the mass graves of Sardinia died of the same cause, a disease epidemic.  By identifying and studying the causative agent of ancient plagues, we hope to learn about the evolving nature of human and animal modern pathogens so that we can model current and future epidemics.

Since I left Sardinia and my little project, the ancient Pathogen Project has grown enormously.  And that brings us to the announcement of the Ancient Pathogens meeting hosted by Professor Salvatore Rubino in Sardinia, Italy, in September.  The conference is sponsered by JIDC, University Health Network, Shantou University Medical School, Immune Diagnostics and Research, Comune Di Stintino, University of Sassari. This is an exciting opportunity!

Mass grave excavation in Alghero, Sardinia

Titled Mummies, Bones, and Ancient Pathogens, the conference will take place 7-8 September 2012, in Stintino, Sardinia, Italy, at the STINTINO Palazzo Comunale. Over the course of the two days, four sessions on “Archaic and Modern Genomes”, “Evolutionary Medicine, Ancient Pathogens and Pathologies”, “Ancient Pathogens”, and “Bioarchaeology of Sardinia and Sicily” will be held. Several of Europe’s foremost researchers in the fields of Archaeology, Bioarchaeology, the History of Medicine, and Ancient Pathogens are featured speakers, including Prof. Carsten Pusch of the Institute of Human GeneticsUniversity of Tübingen, Germany;  Prof. Bernardino Fantini University of Geneva, Switzerland; Prof. Marco Milanese, University of Sassari; Susanna Sawyer University of Tübingen, Germany; Prof. Raffaella Bianucci University of Turin; Prof. Paolo Francalacci University of Sassari; Prof. Marco Rendeli, University of Sassari; Elisabetta Garau, Unversity of Sassari; Rossella Filigheddu, University of Sassari; and Dr. Alberto Leo Shantou University to name a few. Just to tantalize you, here are some titles of the exciting presentations:

“Archaic Genomes: A Story Written in Neanderthal and Denisova DNA”

“Placing the sequence of “Ötzi the Iceman” in the high resolution Y chromosome phlylogeny by whole genome sequencing”

“Cancer and Infectious Diseases: the Challenge of Soft Tissue Paleopathology”

“Vector-Borne Diseases in Ancient Human Remains”

“The Sicily Mummy Project”

“First Insights into the Metagenome of Ancient Egyptian Mummies Using Next Generation Sequencing”

“Sequencing DNA from Ancient Seeds with Medicinal Properties”

For more information including registration, please visit the conference website http://www.mummiesbonesandancientpathogens.org/  or email Prof. Salvatore Rubino at rubino(at)uniss(dot)it

Reference List

    1.    Papagrigorakis MJ, Yapijakis C, Synodinos PN, Baziotopoulou-Valavani E (2006) DNA examination of ancient dental pulp incriminates typhoid fever as a probable cause of the Plague of Athens. Int J Infect Dis 10: 206-214. S1201-9712(05)00178-5 [pii];10.1016/j.ijid.2005.09.001 [doi].

2.    Raoult D, Aboudharam G, Crubezy E, Larrouy G, Ludes B, Drancourt M (2000) Molecular identification by “suicide PCR” of Yersinia pestis as the agent of medieval black death. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 97: 12800-12803. 10.1073/pnas.220225197 [doi];220225197 [pii].

3.    Drancourt M, Aboudharam G, Signoli M, Dutour O, Raoult D (1998) Detection of 400-year-old Yersinia pestis DNA in human dental pulp: an approach to the diagnosis of ancient septicemia. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 95: 12637-12640.

4.    Drancourt M, Raoult D (2004) Molecular detection of Yersinia pestis in dental pulp. Microbiology 150: 263-264.

5.    Gilbert MT, Cuccui J, White W, Lynnerup N, Titball RW, Cooper A, Prentice MB (2004) Absence of Yersinia pestis-specific DNA in human teeth from five European excavations of putative plague victims. Microbiology 150: 341-354.



Filed under Countries, Events, Infectious Disease, JIDC News, News, Salmonella, Tuberculosis, Yersinia pestis

TB & HIV in South Africa — They Go To Die Film Documentary by Jonathan Smith

A couple of months ago, I received this incredible story in my email.  I was asked to help distribute information for the film documentary They Go To Die, and I immediately thought of posting it for the JIDC special TB Issue.

Jonathan Smith is an epidemiologist, who also has a special interest in each life that exists behind the statistics.   His work focuses on the problem of TB and HIV co-infection among gold miners in South Africa.  Importantly, not only does Jonathan strive to describe the scientific problem, he also wishes to tell the stories of the mine workers who have contracted these diseases.  This compelling project has culminated in the production of a film documentary, They Go To Die, of the miners and their families as Jonathan lives and works with them in South Africa.

What really drew me to Jonathan and his project was that I felt he shared the same vision and goal I had when I started the JIDC Blog.  This goal was to share the stories of the human lives behind the science.  Below is the Press Release that was sent to me.  Also, you can see an introductory video to his Film here:



For Immediate Release

Unique approach to conveying research stirs public interest in HIV/TB epidemics

Media project catches the attention of TB/HIV experts

NEW HAVEN, CT – October 3, 2011 – Among researchers around the globe seeking to find a solution to the world’s growing TB/HIV epidemics, one researcher at Yale University is taking a slightly different angle.

Jonathan Smith, a lecturer in Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases and Global Health at the Yale School of Public Health who focuses on TB and HIV among South African gold miners, has turned to artistry and visual media to convey the urgency of these concomitant epidemics. Visually presenting his research experience in a documentary film titled, They Go to Die, he is uniquely seeking to surface complex health and legal issues associated with these devastating epidemics though the prism of life, family relationships, and community.

“Health research has become a statistical argument about a gain or loss of numbers. Statistics are undoubtedly important because they highlight the gravity of a situation. But ‘mortality’ doesn’t simply mean someone dies, it means an individual is removed from a greater, organic infrastructure of family and community. The effect of this removal is something that you can’t relegate to the confines of an academic journal, much less verify with p-values,” Smith states, describing his approach.

Smith, who began the project as a graduate student at Yale, self-funded and self-organized two separate trips to southern Africa for the film’s production. After a year and a half of organizing, working several part time jobs, and a crash course in filmmaking, he left for Africa to live with the families of four former mine workers coinfected with TB and HIV. There he became immersed in their lives – even sleeping in the same communal bed with the families and garnering a traditional name, ‘Masheshay’nike.’ During this time, he documented their daily lives in order to understand how former mine workers and their families cope with life at home with TB/HIV.

Jonathan Smith during the production of his project


South African mines have long been synonymous with disease. Informal and substandard living and working conditions underground lead to high rates of silicosis, a disease cause by silica dust produced in the mines, as well as TB. Living in hostel-style living conditions means intimacy is often only in the form of sex workers, which also puts miners at high risk for HIV infection. HIV and silicosis both act to increase TB susceptibility, but when combined, they multiplicatively increase the risk of TB infection.This ‘perfect storm of disease’ results in the highest rate of TB in the world: up to twenty-eight times a declared emergency set by the World Health Organization and three times higher than the highest burdened countries. Unfortunately, over ninety percent of the men are migrant workers and frequently oscillate between the mines and rural areas of southern Africa. This spreads the disease around the sub-continent with frightening efficiency: a recent study indicates that aside from HIV, South African mining is the largest driver of the TB epidemic in southern Africa and directly responsible for 760,000 incident cases of TB each year.

TB is perfectly curable and HIV is manageable with proper medication. However, when a worker becomes sick at the mine, their illness deems them ‘unfit for work,’ and legal complexities absolve corporate, governmental, and union-based accountability for the worker’s health and well-being. Subsequently, they are sent home to rural areas of southern Africa with no medication or means for continuation of care. Since these areas often have little or no access to medication, this process is colloquially termed, “sending them home to die.” It is this colloquial terminology where Smith derived the name of his film; a term that he feels highlights the complacency of the situation.

Without proper treatment, TB complicated by HIV kills with ease: eighty three percent of untreated, coinfected individuals will die, having an average life expectancy of only 6 months from onset of disease.

But don’t remind Smith of this. To him, it is all too real.

“These men were my friends. They invited me into their home and accepted me as family. Then they died a completely preventable death – so this is obviously personal to me. Needless.” he states, clearly affected.

Miner Friends of Jonathan

“Its frustrating. You hear it at every conference; every health official with a voice has deemed TB in the mines an ‘emergency’, ‘threat,’ or a “catastrophe.’ But lethargy and inaction deflect this hopeful rhetoric and reality shows the epidemics have only gotten worse. The unfortunate paradox is that this is a preventable and curable disease in a well-regulated industry with a competent government that can easily rectify the situation if there was enough political momentum,” he continues.

Smith’s approach, however, hopes to cut past the statistics and politics by uniquely focusing not solely on death, politics, or numbers, but on the importance of the individual’s life. “No one wants to watch a film about death and become depressed. We want to know there is hope, that there is a reason we should stop this, and that this can be surmounted,” he states. The film’s website goes on to explain, “They Go to Die surfaces issues of health, human rights, and legal complexities… nonlinearly though the context of life, love, and family. It is ultimately a story of humanity – a celebration of family and the power of relationships.”

The distribution plan for the film is also what makes the concept particularly lucrative. With eye-catching aesthetics and high production value combined with valid academic rigor, Smith hopes to make the film appealing to both a general audience as well as decision makers in the academic and governmental realm. This combination, for instance, would make it dually relevant at venues such as academic conferences and university lecture halls, as well as international film festivals, television, and other mainstream outlets.

“Most individuals are not decision makers, so motivating civil society is pointless without a means to release that energy; conversely, educating decision makers is pointless without accountability. This film will hopefully bridge both academia and civil society, and act to accurately inform decision makers while empowering civil society to remain as a watchdog,” Smith states in describing this unique model.

His approach seems to be working and is attracting attention from many leading public health officials.

“Jonathan has done something that most of us in academics rarely achieve,” says Dr. Kaveh Khoshnood, global health professor and HIV/AIDS researcher at Yale University. “[He tells] a compelling story that provokes action.”

Dr. Elizabeth Bradley, Director of Yale’s Global Health Initiative says of his project, “The key about Jonathan’s work is it is authentic. He really knows his stuff and captures reality in a way others have not. You are not the same after you see his film – a great piece of public health.” Dr. Bradley is world renowned for her work in health delivery and quality improvement.

Last May, Dr. Paul Cleary, Dean of the Yale School of Public Health, awarded Smith the distinguished Lowell S. Levin Award for Excellence in Global Health. Smith was also awarded the Yale Global Health Initiative Field Experience Award in 2010 for the project’s innovative approach to global health.

The project is currently in post-production, where Smith is using the website Kickstarter.com to crowd-source the $13,000 in funds needed to advance the project. Over 10,000 projects have been financed through Kickstarter since its founding in 2009, which allows individuals donations towards a variety of creative projects. To date, the project has raised $6,520 from 81 supporters, some of whom are those mentioned above, but per Kickstarter’s all-or-nothing policy he has only 21 days left to reach the goal or he will receive no funds at all.

But again, don’t tell Smith this.

“[Fundraising] is a necessary evil, and I’m trying to figure it out at the moment. It is not a question of ‘if,’ but of ‘how’ and ‘when.’ But I am acutely aware that money alone will not make this approach successful. Like any effort in public health, money is necessary, but it doesn’t equal change. We want the film to serve as a thread that weaves together interested organizations and individuals and mobilizes them to enact change. That will take commitment, teamwork, and dedication, not simply money,” he states.

“We could raise all the money in the world but if we don’t create action, quite frankly, the project is rendered pointless,” he continues.

Jonathan will be travelling through Canada and the United States in late October through December.  He is planning multimedia presentations and Q&A sessions at local campuses and other forums, and is looking for individuals and groups who would be interesting in attending these talks.

Now a lecturer at Yale, he hopes to teach and reproduce this model in other areas of global health. Smith states, “There are a number of global health issues that where data clearly delineates a need for change, but action seems to be absent. If we connect that statistical evidence with the power of humanity, then we can motivate the change needed to help those who need it most.”

Contact Information:

For more information about They Go to Die, visit: http://www.theygotodie.com

Jonathan can be reached at: jonathan.smith@theygotodie-movie.com

The They Go to Die kickstarter page can be found at: http://kck.st/ocZ5rn

If you (or your organization) is interested partnering with the film, please contact Jonathan Smith directly.

Press Release and Photos provided by BGS Horsman

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Filed under HIV/AIDS, Postcards, South Africa, Tuberculosis

The 1st International Conference on Drug Therapy in TB Infection

This Blog Post was received from Dr. Abubaker Yaro, Editor-In-Chief for the scientific journal Annals of Tropical Medicine & Public Health. Here Dr Yaro announces the 1st International Conference on Drug Therapy in TB Infection, in Post 1 of a two-part Post describing the conference and the current state of Tuberculosis Drug Therapy. Here in Post 1, Dr Abubakar Yaro describes the conference and its objectives. Expect TB Drug Conference Post 2 soon.

The Africa Health Research Organization, AHRO, presents the International Conference on Drug Therapy in TB Infection

What: First International Conference on Drug Therapy in TB Infection
When: 6-7 January 2012
Where: Edinburgh Scotland
Who: Presented by AHRO, Africa Health Research Organization


WHY: The Problem
TB remains one of the most important public health issues worldwide. Globally it is estimated that 8.8 million new cases occur annually and of these 3.9 million are smear positive. Although there is an effective therapy through the DOT strategy and the majority of the global population are BCG vaccinated, the public health burden of TB is quite staggering. New and shorter-period drugs and vaccines are urgently needed as well as a forum where stakeholders can meet to exchange ideas.

The Event


This highly educative and exciting event aims to gather researchers, physicians, allied health workers and policy makers in Edinburgh, Scotland, from 6 to 7 January 2012 to share information on issues regarding TB medicine. There will be no concurrent sessions and the Conference committee are still accepting abstracts for the event. Abstracts, which should be no longer than 300 words, can be submitted to editor@atmph.org.

Barceló Edinburgh Carlton Hotel Image from Hotel website

Invited Speakers 

• Professor Anthony Coates, St George’s University of London, UK
• Dr. Ian Laurenson, Director, Scottish Mycobacterium Reference Lab, Scotland
• Dr. Eisin McDonald, Health Protection Agency, Scotland
• Associate Professor Robert A Ollar, Berth Israel Medical Center, USA
• Emeritus Professor Peter Beverley, University of Oxford, UK
• Dr Amina Jindani, St George’s University of London, UK
• Dr. Zarir F Udwadia, Hinduja Hospital India & Author of Principles Of Respiratory Medicine
• Dr. Michel Tibayrenc, MIVEGEC Bolivia & Editor in Chief, Genetics & Evolution Elsevier
• Professor Hazel M Dockrell, LSHTM, UK
• Professor Stephen H Gillespie, University of St. Andrews, UK
• Professor Edith Sim, Oxford University, UK
• Dr Geoff Coxon, Strathclyde Institute of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences, UK
• Dr. Clifton Barry, National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases, USA

Who Should Attend?
• Researchers
• Medical Officers
• Nurses
• Allied Health Workers
• Policy Makers
• Pharmaceutical Companies

Register Today: http://www.eventsbot.com/events/eb662245306


• Biology & Epidemiology of TB
• TB Immunology & Pathogenesis
• Current TB Chemotherapy
• Drug Resistance
• HIV/TB: A Deadly Syndemic
• Current Strategies in TB Drug Development: From Bench to Bedside
• TB Vaccine: Concept & Progress

#1 Top Rated TB Conference

Look for Part 2 of this two-part Blog series on the First International Conference on Drug Therapy in TB Infection soon. Part 2 will include discussions on Problems of TB screening and diagnosis and the current state of TB drug therapy.


Filed under Events, Tuberculosis