Entomology, chemical ecology, evidence-based environmentalism and science in general. I like big bugs and I cannot lie.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

020609 - I've had better days

There is a species of wasp (I've forgotten the name but I'm sure
someone reading this will be able to provide it in the comments) which
buries a cockroach in its burrows for its developing larvae to feed
on. It's a small wasp though , and a cockroach is a large insect, so
dragging a dead cockroach into the burrow would be impossible.
Instead of killing it then, the wasp stings the cockroach and injects
a very special toxin which doesn't paralyse it but destroys the part
of its brain that gives it volition (if that word can be applied to a
cockroach). The cockroach loses any desire to move of its own accord,
but if the wasp seizes it by the antennae and gently leads it towards
its burrow it will walk, unresisting, to its doom. There it will
remain alive as the young larvae feed on it, devoid of any desire to

In this heat I feel like that cockroach, capable of completing tasks
if led to them but not really in any fit state to plan a study. The
rains aren't due for another fortnight or so, but yesterday I saw
clouds in the sky for the first time and last night the heat felt like
a solid thing, heavy and smothering in the darkness. Sitting in the
village to catch flies I could feel the sweat pouring down my legs,
and when I got home I discovered a livid sweat rash between my tits
(in a way this is quite gratifying, as I didn't think my tits were big
enough to sweat between). To replace the water I'm drinking about
four litres of water a day, with a couple of sachets of dioralyte.
Fortunately knowing Lou has prepared me for that fact that for doctors
no bodily function is an unsuitable subject for polite conversation,
but I was still a little unsettled when Shivonne asked me how many
times a day I was going to the toilet. I was even more unsettled
when, after a brief stop to irrigate a nearby palm field (no ants this
time) Shivonne gave me an encouraging little smile and said "You're
not doing too badly for hydration!".

In spite of the heat we got some good flycatch data in the morning,
but things started to go wrong after lunch when we returned to a
village we'd screened last week and found to have a high incidence of
trachomatous infection. I could tell that something wasn't right as
soon we pulled in to the village - usually we are greeted with smiles
and shouts of welcome, but here the people looked sullen and were
reluctant to talk to Smauel L. It turned out that the day after we
had inspected the childrens' eyes there had been an outbreak of vernal
conjunctivitis (an eye infection different from trachoma) in the
village, for which the villagers were blaming. It's not impossible
that we caused this, but it seems very unlikely - when screening
Samuel L and the Professor followed the standard hygienic procedures
between eyes, this hadn't happened in any of the other villages we'd
screened and outbreaks of vernal conjunctivitis amongst children are
not uncommon that time of year in the normal course of events. What
mattered in this situation though was not what had caused the outbreak
but that the villagers believed that we had.

We gave out tubes of chloramphenicol to the mothers of the infected
children, and as a PR excercise gave sweets to the Alkalo for all the
village children, but they didn't want us to take samples. Suddenly a
furious mother confronted us with a sobbing girl with blood red
corneas and swollen eyelids coated in a white powder. It turned out
that she had conjunctivitis and that her mother had attempted to treat
this by crushing a packet of paracetamol tablets and pouring it into
her eyes. There's a bit of an attitude here that if a medicine treats
one thing it'll treat anything, and the more the better, but I think
even Shivonne was shocked by this. She washed her eyes out and gave
her some ointment for the infection, but there was nothing she could
do for the irritation.

If that wasn't enough, just as we were preparing to leave a shout went
up and a man came running up to the bantaba with a small girl in his
arms, blood pouring down her face. Once Shivonne had cleaned it up it
turned out to be a very small cut that had just been bleeding
profusely, but as she had done it on a rusty iron sheet Shivonne was
worried about tetanus. The child had no clinic card and noone knew
whether she was up to date with her vaccinations, so Shivonne told the
parents to take her to the nearby hospital for a vaccination - of
course as a trachoma screening team we had no vaccinations to give
out, but the villagers had a hard time believing this.

Driving home, Samuel L was uncharacteristically quiet. He eventually
explained that we would be going back to our own countries but these
were his people, whose language he spoke, and he had friends in nearby
villages - could we be absolutely certain that he hadn't given those
children conjunctivitis? We tried to reassure him, but "correlation
doesn't imply causation" is a nice pat phrase beloved of sceptical
bloggers but doesn't provide much comfort in these situations.

We stopped off at the Kaur weather station to ask for temperature,
humidity and wind speed data for the region over the sampling period.
All was going well until the station operator explained that providing
this information was complicated and that many people made a small
payment to help cover expenses. As he was paid a salary to collect
the data anyway I couldn't see that the expenses involved in providing
it would be much more than the cost of a pencil and paper, but by that
stage I would have given both kidneys to get the data and get home to
a cold bucket bath so I agreed to give him a "small present". I did
feel bad afterwards, knowing that by giving in I'd made things that
bit harder for the next researcher to come by, but screw it, I think
I'm accruing enough good karma just by being here and washing out of a
blue plastic rubbish bin every day to balance it out.

We stopped again to buy cold soft drinks and I was briefly amused by
my can of inaccurately named "Real Orange" (the only plant-derived
ingredients being sugar and, bizarrely, esterified wood-resin). My
mood was still sufficiently dark though that when Shivonne pointed out
a huddle of children around a well by the road I said the first thing
that came into my head, which was "One of them has probably fallen
in". She looked slightly shocked and said she thought they were
probably telling stories.

The thing about fieldwork though is there's no time or headroom to be
miserable, you just have to try to get some sleep and go out and do it
all again the next day. I hope tomorrow will be better, Inshallah.

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